May 12, 2009

The final editions of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Rocky Mountain News and The Cincinnati Post.

Newspapers in Peril? This Time, It’s Different

In June 1897, near the end of a staggering economic downturn, the Journalist trade publication offered pithy advice for reporters and editors in New York City which, then as now, was the nerve center of American journalism.

The recession of the mid-1890s battered metropolitan journalism, especially in New York. Layoffs swept the city’s newsrooms. Newspapers in 1897 speculated which of their rivals might have to fold. High on the critical list was The New York Times, which had been acquired just months before by Adolph Ochs.

Against the tableau of gloom of that long ago summer, the Journalist advised: "Go anywhere, but leave New York. It is today the poorest field for anything but the highest talents, and these are often crowded into insignificance."

To be sure, American newspapers have endured tough times before, and survived and prospered. Grim predictions of their demise, stimulated by hard economic times, proved illusory.

But this time, it’s different. Newspapers as vigorous and conspicuous forces in the American media landscape may not survive this economic storm. There are at least four powerful reasons why they may be doomed.

  • • One, the long-established business model, in which newspapers were a convenient and effective means of bringing together buyers and sellers through advertising, is fractured beyond repair. For years, advertising has been deserting the press for the Internet, where bringing together buyers and sellers is cheaper and far more efficient.
  • • Two, the Internet has unbundled media content. One need not buy a newspaper just for sports news. Or international news. Or stock tables. It’s all online, in discrete packages and in unmatched variety. News à la carte has proven irresistible.
  • • Three, greater numbers of Americans are finding the news irrelevant. Almost 20 percent of adult Americans go without news during a typical day, according to the Pew Research Center’s biennial media-use survey in 2008. Ten years earlier, the percentage of American adults who went newsless was 14 percent. Among adults 18-to-24-years-old these days, 34 percent say they go newsless. A declining constituency for news offers no encouragement for newspapers.
  • • Four, newspapers have been complicit in their decline. Their credibility — the notion they play it straight in reporting the news — is deeply doubted. Slightly more than 20 percent of adult Americans believe all or most of what they read in their local newspaper, Pew data say. For The New York Times, the believability quotient is 18 percent. It’s 16 percent for USA Today.

On top of all that, the worst recession in years has made it nearly impossible for prominent newspaper companies, such as Chicago-based Tribune Co., to dig out from staggering loads of debt.

Sadly, it is different this time. The predicament facing American newspapers is as bleak as it is unprecedented.

W. Joseph Campbell, a former Newseum scholar, is a journalism historian who teaches at American University in Washington. He is the author of four books, including The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms (2006) and Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies (2001).

Related story: Newspapers in Peril? Hold the Obituaries

Related video: Digital Newspapers: The New Reality

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