Newspapers Struggle to Avoid Their Own Obit ; They Face Dwindling Circulation and Competition from Other Outlets, but Are Likely to Survive - If They Can Adapt

Article excerpt

Will the last American newspaper lose its last reader before the middle of the century? Journalism professor Philip Meyer thinks it's possible.

After all, the percentage of adults who report reading daily newspapers has fallen from 81 percent in 1964 to just 52 percent in 2004. If the trend continues, there won't be any readers left within a few decades, says Mr. Meyer, an author and former reporter who teaches at the University of North Carolina.

The unhappy prospect of fizzle instead of fizz isn't the only challenge facing publishers and editors. The antics of plagiarizing and lying newspaper reporters have scarred the media's credibility. Recent industry scandals raise questions about whether newspapers are fudging their circulation numbers, and federal do-not-call legislation stopped the lucrative practice of selling subscriptions through telemarketing. And now, free websites like craigslist.com are siphoning off millions of dollars in vital classified ad revenue from newspapers.

Of course, Meyer is hardly the first person to forecast the demise of newspapers. Critics have been highlighting the industry's struggles for decades, as afternoon papers folded and dozens of cities became one-paper towns. Still, more than 1,400 daily newspapers continue to set the news agenda for television, radio, and the Internet, both nationally and locally. Meanwhile, newspaper advertising revenue grew during all but the first three years of the 1990s, and it went up during the last quarter of 2004, too.

"Don't believe the doomsayers," says Jay Smith, president of the Cox Newspapers chain. "They've been out there for a long time, and we'll gladly carry their obituaries."

But there's no denying a sense of looming crisis as subscription numbers at individual newspapers drop - 2 percent here, 5 percent there - each year. Even the industry's traditionally healthy profit margins won't survive if advertisers balk at paying top dollar to reach elderly diehards - senior citizens still love papers - or no one at all.

What to do? "The newspapers will have to be smart about distributing the news in the way [young] consumers want, or they won't be relevant," says Sammy Papert III of Belden Associates, a newspaper research firm.

Indeed, newspapers are trying to reach younger people through quick-read free papers, Spanish-language papers, and stand-alone weekly entertainment tabloids. But most of the new strategies rely on an old standby: ink printed on a page. And that may spell trouble. …