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Prophets of Gloom: Why Do Newspaper Journalists Have So Little Faith in the Future of Newspapers?

Article excerpt

It's difficult to imagine doctors, lawyers or accountants believing that they, as a profession, will soon be a less important part of American life. Newspaper journalists, however, seem to exhibit that kind of pessimism about their professional future. This study found that 55 percent of newspaper journalists believe newspapers will be a "less important part of American life" in the next 10 years. This represents a significant increase over eight years ago, when a similar survey found only one-third of newspaper journalists stating that newspapers would be less important in the future.(2)

In this study, 40 percent indicated that in 10 years newspapers will be about where they are now, and only 4 percent thought newspapers will become more important. There are two obvious explanations: Either newspaper journalists are overly pessimistic, or they have good reason to lack optimism. It is likely a combination of both factors.

The purpose of this article is to examine perceptions and attitudes that might help explain newspaper journalists' widespread and growing pessimism about newspapers. Whether the threats to newspaper journalism are real or imagined, the views of the industry's practitioners will play a key role in the industry's ability to maintain its presence.

Threats to newspaper journalism

It is an irony of history that U.S. newspaper journalists have become so pessimistic at a time when newspapers are doing rather well. Recent controversies over news-gathering practices and fabrications notwithstanding, journalists enjoy extensive legal freedom in their work. And economic patterns within the communications industry have made newspapers a lucrative business.(3) The stock price of every major newspaper company was substantially higher in the mid-1990s than it was a decade earlier, and the increase has been fairly steady.(4) Advertising lineage continues to rise, and these figures (as well as circulation) have been remarkably stable over time.(5) Despite gloomy predictions that emerge repeatedly when new media enter the market, newspapers have endured - and in good health.

Yet journalists seem worried about the survivability of their product. Most published evidence of this uncertainty is anecdotal. A panel of journalists, for example, at the 1996 meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication agreed that students should stay away from newspaper careers and instead seek out new media.(6) In his study of the legacy of Knight-Ridder's 25/43 Project in Boca Raton, Fla., Kris Kodrich reported despondent predictions from several current and former reporters and editors.(7)

Indeed, the American newspaper does face several imposing challenges. The mere fact that newspapers have not vanished cannot be taken as a sufficient indicator, let alone a guarantor, of future success. Structural changes in the market and social changes in media-society relations constantly require the rethinking of standard journalistic practices.(8) Perhaps it is not so much their literal survival that is at stake, but their significance as a medium. There are three much-debated areas of concern: Alienation of readers, effects of market-driven journalism and the new-media challenge.

Alienation of readers

While the circulation of many newspapers is stable, and while many of the largest papers are gaining, some seriously struggle with circulation decline.(9) And even when circulation stays steady, readership rates have dropped steadily: In the 1960s, about 80 percent of U.S. adults read a newspaper on a weekday, but only 58 percent did so in 1997.(10)

Dozens of reasons have been offered to explain this decline. Doug Underwood, for example, notes that Americans often feel too busy to read papers; more adults work outside the home; people are more mobile and thus less involved with community and local news; there is intense competition for leisure time; and the increasing proportions of ethnic minorities have little affinity with general-circulation newspapers. …