Collapsing industries are hardly an unusual thing this year. Real estate, banking, airlines, automobiles, music and more are all in dire straits. One of the most consequential ones, however, with ripple effects that will last far beyond the pain of this current economic downturn, is the death spiral of the newspaper business.

For some years now, even when economic times were better,a common question in public discourse was “will print journalism be able to survive the challenge of the internet?” 2008 was the year the answer became a painfully clear “no,” and the question shifted to “how long before print journalism gives up the ghost?” Indeed, one of the biggest news stories of the year was, ironically, the death spiral of the industry responsible for coving big news stories.

Journalist and blogger Andrew Sullivan summed up the situation well in a recent column in The (London) Times. As he pointed out,

Between March and September the 500 biggest newspapers in America reported an average circulation decline of 4.6%. In six months. That’s close to a 10% decline per year. No newspapers showed any but fractional gains. It is therefore a near-certainty that many towns and cities in America will no longer have a newspaper after the [economic] downturn.

And that was in a huge news year, during an election campaign that (as he points out) of historic levels of interest and importance. Yet audiences looking for news and analysis increasingly turned elsewhere:

In October last year my blog got 3.5m page views; in October this year it had 23m page views. The story of the campaign, in other words, did find a readership (and page views of big online papers soared as well). The growth just didn’t occur in newsprint.

Sullivan is, of course, one of the most famous voices in the blogosphere, but he’s far from the only one; newcomers like Nate Silver’s rose to dramatic heights of readership as well, and lower levels of public interest were spread across almost limitless numbers of other bloggers. Meanwhile the Christian Science Monitor ceased print publication this year, and the Chicago Tribune has declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and other papers are reducing publication frequency, and layoffs are rampant across teh industry.

The situation is relatively straightforward and easy to understand, actually. Longtime New York Times reporter John Darnton described it well in a presentation at this fall’s Chicago Humanities Festival. It’s not that people aren’t interested in good content, or even that newspapers are failing to produce it. It’s a matter of business models. For decades now the news business had drawn its profits from advertising, using its product to deliver eyeballs to advertisers and using the revenue from ads to produce the news that attracted the eyeballs. It was a system that worked for everyone involved, and allowed the product itself to be sold cheaply.

Cheap, however, is not the same as free, and free is what the internet offers. Increasingly that’s been the case not only for readers but even for advertisers; Craigslist, for instance, has absolutely eaten the lunch of print classified ads, offering a forum where everyone can post for free, and search and respond more quickly and easily than ever as well.

So newspapers put their own content online for free… and, of course, run web ads to support it. But the revenue level is lower, especially for content (and ads) of interest only to local audiences… while for material of broader public interest, the competition is suddenly not just other local publications, or even television, but every single online publication worldwide, all of which are equally available to readers with the click of a mouse.

Darnton had a long and distinguished career at the Times, and speaks fondly of it, but he’s under no illusions. He sees, as do the publishers, that making the leap from the current business model to one driven by online revenue is next to impossible, and he expects that the number of papers that accomplish it will be few enough to count on your fingers… of one hand. (Not without a morbid sense of humor, he’s set his latest novel (a murder mystery) in the newsroom of a flailing and failing major daily.)

But hey, it’s just capitalism at work, right? If they can’t compete, let ’em fail!

Problem is, however good the survivors are (and the Times itself will probably be among them), a handful of publications can’t support the same kind of robust journalistic profession and same degree of comprehensive global coverage that generations of readers have taken for granted. They can’t duplicate the detailed local coverage at all; most of that will more than likely disappear. And bloggers are no substitute; even the best of them (of us!) don’t have a fraction of the resources or manpower of the major papers, and rely on them (the online versions, that is) for the breaking news on which we all expound. Moreover, even today only about 80% of the American public actually has access to the internet, so public access to vital information will be incresaingly segregated by economic class. It seems inevitable that the public role of the fourth estate, the free press so important to democracy that the Framers chose to enshrine it in the Constitution, is going to be greatly diminished.

A huge portion of newspapers’ costs of production, of course, indeed as much as 75%, lies not in journalism itself but in printing and distribution. The Holy Grail that could save the industry, as Darnton put it, lies in a cheap, portable online newsreader, something people can carry about as easily as a newspaper or book and refresh wirelessly. The fabled electronic paper that’s been the goal of years of R&D, in other words. Unfortunately, though, while technology has progressed far enough to make newspapers’ old model non-viable, it hasn’t yet progressed far enough to make such a replacement really feasible. Apparently the industry has some hope for PlasticLogic, a product due for initial release this winter, but even that’s really just a halfway technology… more a proof-of-concept than something likely to catch on widely.

News reporting isn’t likely to go away completely, of course… not in a culture as information-driven and media-saturated as ours… but the quality and range of choices we once took for granted may simply no longer be available in the future.

In the meantime, as important as journalism is in its own right, we shouldn’t overlook the way its fate serves as the canary in the coal mine for future economic and cultural transitions. As materials technologies improve and manufacturing productivity continues to increase, for instance, more conventional industries may well find their own profit margins reduced to marginality and their own work forces increasingly superfluous. Better, cheaper, more durable products may seem like a sign of progess, but the social change they bring with them will by no means be an unalloyed good. (Anyone who’s seen The Man in the White Suit might have thought this was obvious fifty years ago, yet as a culture we remain shockingly unprepared to deal with it.)

We are far too conditioned to accept the world as we found it as “normal,” and assume it will continue that way. The fate of the newspaper, after a century in which circumstances converged uniquely to its advantage, should be an object lesson. Even as we struggle to move past the economic turmoil of the moment, we need to look further down the road, and prepare ourselves as individual citizens and as a body politic to deal with the larger consequences of rapidly evolving technology.

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3 Responses to “The collapsing newspaper industry”
  1. katrina says:

    I agree with you. Print media is really on its breaking point right now. Next thing you know it will be like the famous print comics. but I stil enjoy the news on print.
    -Get your ex back.-

  2. Andrew says:

    I wonder what kind of world will our children inherit … No newspapers … well that’s just it. What could we do?!

  3. I guess I’d better keep my subscription going. For the good of the future.

    Not kidding.

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