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