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The Future of the Daily Press

For the past two years academic observers of the press and a few of its working members have been diagnosing the continuing decline in circulation numbers for American daily newspapers, and it’s fair to say that they’ve recently come to a consensus: most newspapers, especially metro, or monopoly dailies, are moribund.

Figures describing the percentage of homes that subscribe to newspapers have shown declines-of about three-quarters of a percent annually-for forty years. In The Vanishing Newspaper, a 2004 book, University of North Carolina journalism professor Philip Meyer puts a date on the looming demise of the daily press. The industry, he says, will be “running out of daily readers late in the first quarter of 2043.”

Meyer is not alone in predicting the end of newspapers, although only he has assigned a date to the demise. The 2004 volumes, All the News That’s Fit to Sell, by Duke University economics professor James T. Hamilton, We the Media, by former San Jose Mercury News columnist Dan Gillmor, and the 2005 Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News, by Vermont journalism professor David T. Z. Mindich, are also obituaries for the press.

Though industry spokesmen have responded to these dire, if scholarly, predictions with howls and whines of derision and denial, the facts keep lining up with the scholars. In mid-2005, the Audit Bureau of Circulations reported that readership had slipped about 2 percent over the first half of 200-a doubling of the historic rate.

The ABC report’s figures were skewed by adjustments made in the wake of circulation scandals at dailies in Dallas, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, but nevertheless caused new worry. Some of the nation’s 1456 dailies recorded circulation losses as steep as 9 percent, and only a third showed any, always modest, gains.

The Bureau’s most recent report, year-to-year for September, puts the national decline at 2.6 percent, another acceleration in the rate of circulation loss.

Newspapers aimed at a national readership fared better than others in both the ABC spring and September surveys, though there was little to cheer about; the New York Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal all gained or lost about a point.
Fragmentation

Circulation losses at metro dailies reflect several factors, prime among them a fragmentation of tastes in news consumption, especially among 18-35 year olds, whose habits and attitudes are extremely important to advertisers because the young are at the stage of life in which key purchasing decisions are made.

But fragmentation is not new to American publishing.

A preview may have been the displacement of the nearly-universal large-format magazines, Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post, which passed their primes in the 1960s. Technology, i.e., television-like the Internet today–is often blamed for their decline. But TV did not thin magazine circulation so much as disperse it: niche market magazines proliferated as the old standbys slumped.

As early as 1969, journalism educator James Carey observed that, “out on the streets, in cities and neighborhoods where we live, the separatist tendencies outweigh, at the moment, the convergent ones.” And certainly geographer David Harvey anticipated media fragmentation in The Condition of Postmodernity, first published in 1990. In the popular press, Robert D. Putnam’s 2000 Bowling Alone drew attention to “generational succession” as a factor that was undermining both newspaper circulation and civic participation.

Today more young women read Cosmopolitan, Mindich reports in Tuned Out, and more young men read Maxim than read Time or Newsweek. The typical viewer of Headline News is 51 years old, and the typical viewer of CNN’s traditional programming is between 59 and 64. The median age of New York Times readers is about 48, roughly the same as for the national newsmagazines, and-horror of horrors!-“Nearly half of people under the age of 30 . . . use late night comedians as a major source of news.”

After reviewing dozens of readership studies, Mindich concludes that, “Eighty percent of young people don’t read the newspaper today, and there is no evidence that they will read 20 years from now.”

The prevailing wisdom in press circles ten years ago was that the young were marrying, bearing children and buying homes at a later age, and that when the kids got settled, they would subscribe to newspapers.

That won’t happen, Mindich and his co-thinkers declare.
The Web as Trojan Horse

Optimists are saying that old newspapers will never die, they’ll just shift to the Internet, and recent consumption studies ostensibly support their hope. For example, the proportion of readers age 18-29 who consider the web as their chief source of information is nearly identical to the proportion that relies mostly on newspapers, 36 to 37 percent. And with every year, the proportion of people who rely on the web for news increases, while newspaper circulations shrink.

“The web, it is increasingly clear, is becoming journalism’s future,” long-time industry figures Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach predicted in a commentary on the 2005 report of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

But both Rosenstiel and Kovach come from the editorial side of journalism’s “Church and State” divide; business-side industry figures take a dimmer view.

One problem is that despite several promising experiments, nobody has yet found a way to “monetize” Internet news delivery. The strong suit of metro dailies has been their appeal to universal readerships, to whom they bring advertisements for standard goods. Fragmentation is eating away at the base of that kind of one-size-fits- all marketing.

Some observers have noted another business problem with any switch to web delivery. Internet publication is more akin to radio than to newspaper production, a manufacturing business, Meyer points out-and like radio, web publications are cheaper to establish.

Bob Liodice, CEO of the U.S. Association of National Advertisers, may have been a bit premature in 2004 when he declared that “The mass media don’t exist any more.” But as readerships fragment, advertising revenues will also fragment. And because it’s a cheaper news delivery system, webification is likely to provoke a rush of fledging competitors, intent on peeling off slivers of once-universal, or monopoly, revenue.

Lower cost and lower revenues inspire changes that discomfit the industry’s editorial side, for a different reason. Newspapers operate on a “one to many” mode, while the web shows a “many to many” tendency, veteran webifier Dan Gillmor argues. The most successful web publications, he reports, are those in which editors supervise stories which, like newspaper articles of the pre-commercial era, are reported by amateur as well as professional scribes.

The editorial differences between web and paper publications finds a partial analogy in what has already transpired in television news. In a 2004 column for the Washington Post, Rosentiel outlined these differences:

“Network news was built around the carefully written and edited story, produced by correspondents and vetted in advance . . . Cable news is a live and extemporaneous medium … Only 11 percent of the time is devoted to edited stories . . .

“What is lost in the cable obsession,” he continues, “. . . is the chance to double-check, to rewrite, to edit — and often to even report. What is lost with the passing of network TV, in other words, is the journalism of verification. It is gradually yielding place to a journalism of assertion.”

Most journalism pundits are reluctant to admit it, but it’s so evident as to be notorious: via the blog, the Web has already transformed news delivery as cable did with television.
Mourning Democracy

Studies by scholars who are concerned about the future of the press do not differentiate between readers who fall away because they have become cynical or indifferent to public life, and those who distance themselves because they distrust the media. Nor, generally speaking, do the studies entertain the notion that “the journalism of assertion” could boost, rather than undermine circulation.

The Pew Center’s 2005 annual report, for example, lumps together indifference to political news with suspicion of its sources. “By more than three-to-one (73%-21%),” Pew’s survey found, “the public feels that news organizations are ‘often influenced by powerful people and organizations’ . . . The percentage [of readers] saying that they can believe most of what they read in their daily newspaper dropped from 84% in 1985 to 54% in 2004,” the study’s authors added.

But these findings could as easily point to political awareness as to apathy.

Most observers of the press-including Putnam, Meyer and Mindich-see little or no promise in rising distrust of the press. They have responded to the sunset of metro dailies largely by bewailing the future of the political system.

“Democracy was more manageable when the mass media… tended to mold us into one culture,” Meyer laments.

“The failing health of the nation’s news media . . . is a threat to political life itself,” Mindich warns.

Duke economist James T. Hamilton has sounded a more critical note, however, by pointing to a logic for any turning-away from politics. “People remain rationally ignorant about the details of public policy,” he wrote, “because they have such a low probability of influencing the course of events.”

Or in other words, to the extent that American government is perceived as no longer democratic, the polity loses interest in news about public affairs.

 

Devolution

The discussion about the decline of metro dailies hasn’t produced agreement about whether their disappearance bodes ill or well. Two possible perspectives present themselves. One pictures the decimation as unplanned deforestation. The other sees that when old trees fall, sunlight reaches saplings on the forest floor.

In Europe the daily press has been long pledged to “the journalism of assertion,” just like today’s cable news on American television. And two of the three healthier American national dailies also show partisanship, the New York Times for the Democrats, and the Wall St. Journal for Republicans.

Historians agree that Revolutionary-era American newspapers were established largely to promote factional interests. They were not, as scholar Mitchell Stephens notes, “newspapers that struggled to find a balancing quote from George III.” Their readerships were limited to circles of the like-minded. Contributions and subscription fees accounted for most of their income, which was, in any case, secondary: these newspapers were published to build influence, not generate profits.

According to most histories, the pattern changed little until 1835, when James Gordon Bennett founded the New York Herald, a downscale, sensationalist daily, packed with stories from the everyday life of its city. It spurred the birth of other mass-circulation newspapers whose strong suit was local reporting.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, advertisers began underwriting most of the costs of publishing papers aimed at the masses, and early in the new century, high-speed presses made massification even more attractive, from a business point of view. Investors cooked up plots for economies of grand scale, and where they could, bought and merged competing Republican, Democratic, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, sectarian and socialist newspapers. The result, in city after city, was the local monopoly of the metro daily. American journalism became a profitable, established, reputable commercial enterprise, a matrix of local monopolies.

The editorial expression of the new commercial journalism was “objectivity”–“naïve empiricism” to its kindest critics–a doctrine which the Associated Press adopted as dogma in 1923.

“Originally the development of this form of journalism was grounded in a purely commercial motive: the need of the mass newspapers to serve politically heterogeneous audiences without alienating any significant segment of the audience,” Carey observes.

Though over the past forty years, some textbooks and press organizations have quit proclaiming objectivity’s tenets, the gospel still casts a long shadow in claims about “fairness,” “balance” and “verification.”

The upshot of contemporary developments is that devolution is underway. While the universal readership of metro dailies wanes, fragmenting and polarizing as it goes, the Internet presents a low-cost alternative for news delivery to niche markets, and rewards the deprofessionalization of the trade. When and if a tipping point comes, when metro dailies abandon print for web delivery–as most observers expect them to do–they will not be able to preserve their monopoly positions. Instead, they will face challenges from new entrants, some of whom won’t need to “monetize.”

Portents of the future are already evident-among them this publication, but most are national, not metropolitan or regional organs. If the American tradition of local dominance in the daily press continues, the coming generation of web-based metro dailies will rely on wire services for most of their out-of-town news, but will edit it to suit their ideological interests. (“Objective” dailies have been editing wire copy to suit regional interests for years; adding a political slant won’t be anything radically new.) Local stories will be written by amateurs and professionals, and even on the local level, a hundred schools of thought–including a few on the Left–will once again contend.

DICK J. REAVIS is a Texas journalist who is currently an assistant professor of English at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at: dickjreavis@yahoo.com

 

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Dick J. Reavis is a Texas journalist and the author of The Ashes of Waco.

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