The Future of Newspapers

Article excerpt

THE first American newspaper did not have an auspicious beginning.

Only one edition of Harris's Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick was published before the Crown shut down the three-page mini-tabloid 300 years ago.

But this Boston paper - a publication most press historians agree is America's first newspaper - was the beginning of what was to become one of the nation's largest and most lucrative industries.

Today, on the anniversary of the launch of Harris's paper on Sept. 25, 1690, the daily newspaper industry in the United States:

- Generates advertising expenditures annually of $32 billion - $5 billion more than all television services combined.

- Has a daily circulation of 62 million.

- Employs 477,000 people.

- Consumes 9.1 million tons of newsprint each year.

The nation's 1,626 dailies enjoy an average 20 percent profit before taxes - a profit margin undreamed of in most industries. Only 21 of the nation's 100 largest dailies have registered circulation decreases this year over last.

However, the newspaper industry's three-century journey from quill pens to computer terminals has not been smooth, and at no time has the survival of daily newspapers been more uncertain than it is in the last decade of the 20th century.

Even though more than 113 million American adults read a daily newspaper every weekday - up from 93.1 million in 1967 - a smaller percentage of adults each year say they are readers. Twenty-three years ago nearly three quarters of American adults said they read a newspaper every day. Now only about 1 in every 2 adults says he or she is a daily reader.

The number of newspapers in the US peaked at about 2,600 shortly after the turn of the century, when the average household subscribed to slightly more than two newspapers. Now the average household subscribes to between .6 and .7 daily newspapers.

"The penetration of all established media is declining. This is very much a concern," says Lee Stinnett, executive director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

"But Ford Motors, too, has declined in its household penetration since the early part of this century," Mr. Stinnett says. "This doesn't mean that Ford is on the decline. You can't expect to always have the whole ball game. It's not possible to compare the mixed media environment of today with that of the turn of the century."

Nevertheless, most newspaper analysts and those in the daily newspaper industry say they are concerned that for most of this century circulation gains have not kept pace with population increases.

"Fewer and fewer people see newspapers as a necessary part of their daily lives," says Dan Wackman, director of the University of Minnesota's school of journalism and mass communication.

Professor Wackman adds that in the past, most Americans picked up the newspaper reading habit by about age 30 - the time when they "settled down," became established in a community, and began raising families. Today, though, people are settling down later - if at all. And ever-increasing numbers are not becoming daily newspaper readers.

"It worries me that a lot of people I know who should be loyal newspaper readers are not newspaper readers," Stinnett says. "They have the jobs and educations that would make them good newspaper readers. They say time pressures are to blame."

John Seigenthaler, publisher of the Nashville Tennessean, says that many women simply don't have the time to be daily newspaper readers because they are so busy balancing the roles of breadwinner, mother, and wife.

While most 19th-century immigrants to the US became newspaper readers to help them meet the challenges of a new world, today's immigrants and minorities generally are being socialized in other ways - especially by television. Interest in public affairs wanes

"There has been tremendous growth of the Hispanic and black communities, and the lesser level of readership in these communities presents newspaper publishers with a tough problem," Wackman says. …