Thursday, September 17, 2009

The world of newspapers

Written in May 2009

In choosing a media issue to write about, it is kind of hard to narrow down an issue to just one as there are many important media issues right now that are well known. But, an important media issue that is picking up more traction is the issue of the collapse and possible impending demise of the newspaper industry. The newspaper has played an important role in shaping the development of the United States of America since the colonial era, from the John Peter Zenger trial, to the publication of the Federalist Papers, to the Watergate scandal, newspapers have been there in shaping the growth of the American nation. But, almost with every new technological invention from the radio to the television to the internet, the newspaper medium has taken hits that threaten its position, and now seems to be facing the position of a veteran fighter trying to last just one more round as the very survival of the newspaper is threatened.

Having a successful newspaper was once likened as having a license to print money, but as with all things times have changed that former situation. There had been a lot of talk in recent years that the newspaper industry was in serious trouble. Some have even said that the impending demise could have been seen as far back as the 1970’s. Newspaper columnists had been getting bought out by their papers as a quarter of newspaper jobs have disappeared since 1990, classified departments have been getting smaller and smaller, and newspaper size had also been getting smaller. Writers have been predicting the collapse of the newspaper industry for years now and in just the first five months of 2009, it appears that the prophecy has started to come to fulfillment as there has been a staggering amount of newspaper collapses. The oldest newspapers in the states of Colorado and Arizona both went out of business. The Boston Globe came close to closing its doors, and several large newspaper companies such as the New York Times and Tribune Corporation have been seriously devalued. Major cities are facing the impending possibility of having no major newspapers for the city. In the city of Detroit home newspaper delivery has been reduced in a model that could eventually spread to other cities as a cost reducing measure. Newspapers such as the New York Times have also had to increase prices in an attempt to retain ever shrinking profit margins. The advertising revenue that the newspapers depended on for so long is drying up and the model for newspaper profitability appears to be broken and in need of serious repair.
The newspaper has been a part of America since 1690, even before the establishment of some of the colonies. For many years newspapers thrived in America as they were the main source of information for Americans to know about the globe and even other parts of America that they had never visited. Newspaper writers helped shape public opinion and provided entertainment, sports, critiques, weather, advice, and comedy. The power of the newspaper was so great at one point that William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer filled their newspapers with incendiary headlines to help get the U.S. involved in the Spanish-American war of 1898. Newspapers were also instrumental in social reforms such as the abolition movement and the temperance movement among others. Ethnic newspapers helped spread the news that was significant to a specific group such as immigrants or racial minorities and keep them informed of relevant issues. Newspapers were published with an morning edition, and a afternoon edition to provide news for the whole day. The relative length of time it took to get the news from one place to another helped the newspaper industry tremendously. But, one thing that the newspaper industry has not fared well with is technological developments in media.

Radio was one of the first mediums to deliver a blow to the newspaper industry as radio served some of the same functions that newspapers did. Radio also delivered news, sports information, weather, and entertainment. Unlike newspapers radio delivered this package in real-time and could be enjoyed in a setting where the whole family could enjoy it, unlike a newspaper which was designed for one person to read. The radio also provided listening as voices that were just words on a newspaper page came to life with rich sound. The newspapers in particularly the Associated Press tried to battle back against the advent of radio before realizing that they were in a battle they could not win and that it was better to cooperate with the rising industry.

Another technological advance that would put a serious dent on the newspaper industry was the invention of the television which started picking up popularity in the late 1940’s. Unlike radio which was just sound, television also provided picture images, and unlike newspapers television provided moving images. Television provided footage all over the country and the world and broadcast them streaming into the comfort of your own home. Television took the words read on a newspaper and provided the picture moving and had a much stronger effect on the populace as was shown in the Nixon/Kennedy debates of 1960. Reading and listening to the debates without the broadcast conveyed that Nixon won the debate, but watching on television the popular consensus was that Kennedy was the winner. The newspaper could never hope to have a similar effect. The evening news reduced the importance of the afternoon newspaper and the visual advantages that the newspapers retained even with radio were forever gone. Television did some of the same things that radio and newspaper did except on a bigger scale. Cable television and 24 hour news channels such as CNN and FOX have also hurt the newspapers. You could now get the latest breaking news at any hour of the day in your home further reducing the need for newspapers. But, the medium which has struck the newspaper industry harder than any others is the Internet or World Wide Web. The newspaper is not much different than television or the radio which is also had its influence wane due to the internet. The internet provides the exact same service as newspapers except in most cases you can get it for free on the web. Very few people want to buy something that they know that they can get for free. Classifieds can go on the internet for much cheaper than it would in the newspapers on sites like Craigslist and reach potentially a much larger audience. The news is updated much faster and the internet is interactive in real-time. The news in a newspaper does not update after it is printed like the news on the internet which is always updating. Newspaper stories themselves are printed on the internet and read for free. Newspapers have started their own web sites but they have yet to come close to the profits formerly generated by the printed papers. Blogs dedicated to a specific political point of view provide the slanted news that certain people want to read. One of the things that the internet and cable TV have brought about is the furthering of niche categories for people who are interested in only one subject, while most newspapers are of general interest trying to appeal to everybody. Another problem that the industry has faced is a failure to pick up newer younger readers which is a problem that has confounded the book industry also. Newspapers have a stigma of being outdated and out of touch. With inventions such as cell phones and portable videogames, young people have more things to keep them distracted on places like subways where in the past they would have most likely read newspapers. There has not been much of a fight to save the newspaper in America, just a series of countermoves to hope to stop the bleeding. In Europe there has been a much more concerted and successful effort to try to save the newspaper. Polish newspaper designer Jacek Utko has radically redesigned newspapers throughout Europe and has helped boost newspaper circulation by as much as 100%. But, even a dying patient may make a brief show of strength, and whether something as simple as a newspaper redesign which might be viewed as a gimmick, can work in America is unknown.

I started reading newspapers when I was 6 years old as form of current events homework and eventually I started reading newspapers for fun. My favorite newspaper was the New York Daily News and I liked the general quality of their pictures and the articles were easy to read. My own personal views on the apparent impending demise of the newspaper as it has traditionally been known are mostly that the newspaper is a great tool but facing the possibility of becoming a relic. I used to read a newspaper everyday at one point, and I always made sure to never miss the Sunday newspaper as they have the best classifieds. But, as time has gone on I now rarely buy the newspaper. I mostly only read the newspaper when I can get it for free or at a library. With the new ipod, I just read the New York Times articles on an app for free. I can go on craigslist to find job listings and things for sale. The Sunday newspaper which was so important no longer means anything to me, and the rising prices have been a turnoff for me in purchasing a newspaper and most of the news I need I find online. Also online there is a greater variety of news stories that you would not generally find in a regular newspaper. I worked in the advertising department of a community newspaper that had been recently purchased by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp. My job was to get people to buy space in the classified section listing cars, homes, or jobs and I did it during February 2008. The manager who hired me told me that community newspapers were still going strong despite the decline of the newspaper business and things were still going robust for them. Once I started how different that was from the actual reality. What was once a business that sold itself now was something extremely difficult. Many people were reluctant to pay the advertising rates of the paper and expressed the opinion that they could advertise on the internet for cheaper or free. Some people even questioned whether anyone still read the newspaper or felt that the newspaper was becoming obsolete. I did not have too much success at the paper and I quit working there after a month as I felt that despite Murdoch’s billions the newspaper industry was a sinking ship that I didn’t want to stay on. The newspaper can be a great historical resource as a lot of historians use newspapers as a primary source. Newspapers are printed on paper and you can always look back at the paper some time later to see what was going on that time and they are easy to archive. Community newspapers are a great way to keep local communities abreast of situations facing the community and local events. Local businesses who might not have enough money to advertise on television or the bigger newspapers, can get their advertising placed in a local newspaper. But, the newspaper is another medium that it at a point where it faces becoming obsolete as its time has passed it by. The newspaper in my opinion can possibly survive, but not with the value and profit margins it was once capable of reaching, as there is too much service being provided for free on the internet for that to be possible. The business model that the newspaper uses is a model that is very old and obsolete. Technological advances have rendered them useless and there is no need to feel sympathy for something that has no use and needs to be changed. Trying to relive past glories that are no longer capable of being achieved is not the way to go, the industry must realize that those profits and influence it once wielded is gone and undergo a transformation to reach a level where they can somehow manage to remain in business. For the industry to survive they must manage to provide something that only they and no other industry can provide.

The future of the American newspaper industry is one that is full of uncertainty. Some people in the industry are convinced that newspapers can make a comeback based on their brand names and traditions surrounding them, while others are of the opinion that the newspaper resembles a patient that is terminally ill. It’s hard for old technology to remain viable in an era when new technology replaces it or it has every one of its strengths be replicated by something else. Only time will tell if we are seeing the newspaper continue a march toward obsolescence, or if there is a way to avert this fate.

The New Yorker. [cited May 19,2009] Available at
New Communications Review [cited May 19, 2009] Available at
USA Today [cited May 19,2009] Available at
Rodman, George. Mass Media In A Changing World, 2nd Edition. McGraw Hill, 2008

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