Newspapers in crisis


As someone who grew up in Sri Lanka, a country that has a strong newspaper-reading ethos, I feel a sense of regret at what seems to be an irreversible decline in the fortunes of daily newspapers. Growing up, my family subscribed to two morning newspapers and two evening newspapers each weekday, and three papers on Sundays, if you can imagine that. Wherever I have lived I have had a daily subscription to the local paper.

For almost all my life, I used to have a rigid routine in the mornings. I would start the day by getting a cup of coffer and reading the newspaper for national and world news. If for some reason the paper was not delivered, I felt disoriented without my fix of news the first thing in the morning.

But with the arrival of the internet it is usually the case that I already know what national and international news the paper is likely to contain. So lately my habits have shifted to reading the paper in the evening, more as a form of relaxation, and to get mostly local news and the comics. There is no urgency anymore to read the paper as soon as it comes. My attitude to it is more like towards a magazine. In fact, I could probably do quite well without the paper, and I continue to subscribe more out of habit and a vague sense of loyalty to preserve what I used to consider a valuable institution.

The next generation clearly does not have the same habits as I have, for the same reasons that caused me to change my own habit. Neither of my daughters subscribes to their local newspapers although they both live in cities (San Francisco and Philadelphia) that have large metropolitan dailies. They, like their peers, are getting their news from the internet and do not have the sense that if they do not read the daily paper that they are missing important information. Because they are so networked with others, their attitude seems to be that if the news is important enough, it will find them without them having to seek it out. This attitude is a nightmare for newspaper publishers. Editor & Publisher published data yesterday that average daily circulation had dropped severely in the last six months for the top 25 newspapers, except for the Wall Street Journal, which was flat.

This is largely the reason that newspapers are in trouble. Hardly a day passes without a story about some newspaper somewhere in the nation going into bankruptcy or making cutbacks in reporting staff or reducing the number of pages or the number of days they publish. It seems fairly clear that newspapers are finding it difficult to survive, though in some cases this is due not so much to decline in readership as to bad financial decisions or bad management or just the unrealistic profit expectations of their stockholders.

While I used to think that continuing to subscribe to the daily paper was a worthy attempt on my part to preserve an important institution, I became aware of the generational shift in attitudes when my daughter came home for a few days and she noticed me reading the paper. She said, “So, you still support the killing of trees, I see.” I had not thought of it like that, but she had a point. In many ways, publishing a newspaper, with its vast daily consumption of paper and ink and gas for transportation, to produce something that is then immediately thrown away, is a huge waste in resources, something that the next generation is more keenly conscious of.

Going completely online would be the environmentally friendly thing to do. On the surface, it might seem that simply putting the paper on the web and charging a subscription might work. But the revenue models are not there yet to support such change. Only part of a newspapers’ revenue comes from subscriptions. Newspapers depend heavily on advertising and a big problem for the newspaper is the decline in classified advertising due to people shifting to free outlets on the internet like Craigslist for that purpose. The internet is the perfect vehicle for classified advertising because it strength lies in its ability to link people up with like minded people, buyers with sellers, employers with employees. Newspapers will never regain classified advertising.

Furthermore, people are used to getting information free on the web and are unlikely to pay much for web subscriptions to newspapers. I pay $250 for daily delivery of my paper and definitely would not pay that for online access to the same material. But that does not mean people are not willing to pay for content. For example, I am willing to donate money to websites like Antiwar.com and to my local NPR stations because they provide good quality information. I am also willing to pay subscriptions to get online newsletters. But in each case, it is because these sources provide information that I cannot easily get elsewhere and would be sorry to see disappear. I do not feel that same strong sense of affiliation with my local newspaper. If it went completely online but otherwise remained unchanged, I would likely stop reading it and probably would not subscribe.

Those newspapers that have experimented with charging for online content (like the New York Times putting its columnists behind a pay wall called Times Select) found their readership declining and gave up the practice. I could have predicted that. As I have said before, the old-style columnists are mostly useless and the only reason people read them is because they come bundled up with the rest of the paper. Did the publishers think that many people would actually pay to read the fatuous musings of Thomas Friedman and Maureen Dowd?

Next: Possible models for newspapers

POST SCRIPT: Comics on the plight of newspapers

The comic strips Pearls before swine and Non sequitur highlight the problems with having both print and online versions, with the latter being free.

Comments

  1. says

    There are so many issues here.

    First, I think about my “local” paper, the New York Times. I generally read it (and by it I mean the web site) specifically for local news, but most of the time when I read it, I’m reading some distorted funhouse mirror. The emphasis is almost entirely on the rich, and with a painful lack of self-awareness in the stories. It’s not just the people in the stories, mind you, but the article and/or author also being incredulous to the fact that not everyone is tearing out their hair as to whether or not they should cut out their baby yoga classes.

    Then, there’s the fact that the editorials are generally crap. Oh boy, Bill Kristol (he’s gone now, but still) and Thomas Friedman! I will turn to a blog any day for opinions and analysis. Despite being New York City and all, nothing in the business section ever comes even remotely close to the sort of writing that is put out multiple times per day by the various economic blogs that I read like Calculated Risk, Naked Capitalism or The Big Picture. Not daily, weekly, monthly or even yearly, never.

    Third, relating to the first two issues, even when it comes to local news and reporting, I’m finding blogs to be more interesting and more personal. I can target stories more and get news on a more personal level. I can read Frank Bruni reviewing restaurants that I can’t afford and will never go to, or I can read a few different reviews (with pictures!) of say, a new banh mi stand. The Times has started making neighborhood blogs, but they still fall victim to #1 and their mindset of “Hi everybody, I’m a rich white person who doesn’t understand that the ‘hidden gem’ of a neighborhood that I just moved into was actually gentrified 15 years ago. Additionally, I fail to understand that a neighborhood does not require a surfeit of Asian fusion restaurants, wine bars, and organic food co-ops to be livable!” Commenters would frequently tear into the posts with statements similar to mine.

    Finally, we have free commuter papers here in AMNY and Metro. They’re thin and don’t have too much in them, but they’re perfect for reading on the subway to work.

    And of course, this is just the Times. Don’t even get me started on the Post and the WSJ. Ugh.

  2. says

    I stopped subscribing to newspapers a while ago.
    For two reasons mainly.
    Firstly most of the same content is easily available online and I can get it delivered straight to my email with RSS feeds if I want.
    Secondly I find that most newspapers, even the less tabloid variety, are relying on gossip and campaigns to try and claw back their dwindling readership.

  3. Tim says

    I think the internet has near enough killed the newspaper. I for one enjoy reading newspapers in the morning rather than reading on my computer, but the almost instant delivery of new stories via the internet and the ability to discuss the topic at hand, immediately puts the newspaper at a disadvantage.

    Even with mobile phones and RSS feeds, it’s easy to read any new stories hitting the headlines. Technology moves fast, and I think only the major newspapers will survive.

    Tim – steam cleaners, fireplace designs.

  4. says

    I hate to say it, but I have to agree Mano. Newspapers are struggling terribly, and I won’t be surprised to see even more fall in the near future. Only those that take advantage of their online reader-base will thrive, if you can call it that!

    -Charles, a consultant of Seattle Cheap Flights and the Blackberry Tour

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