Don't Blame the Journalism: The Economic and Technological Forces Behind the Collapse of Newspapers

By Farhi, Paul | American Journalism Review, October-November 2008 | Go to article overview

Don't Blame the Journalism: The Economic and Technological Forces Behind the Collapse of Newspapers


Farhi, Paul, American Journalism Review


When the obituaries are written for America's newspapers, count on journalists to indict themselves in their own demise. You've heard it before, from a thousand bloggers and roundtable know-it-alls: We were too slow to adapt, too complacent, too yoked to our tried-and-true editorial traditions and formulas. We could have saved ourselves, goes the refrain, if only we had been more creative and aggressive and less risk averse.

To which I can only reply: Oh, please.

As newspapers shuffle toward the twilight, I'm increasingly convinced that the news has been the least of the newspaper industry's problems. Newspapers are in trouble for reasons that have almost nothing to do with newspaper journalism, and everything to do with the newspaper business. Even a paper stocked with the world's finest editorial minds wouldn't have a fighting chance against the economic and technological forces arrayed against the business. The critics have it exactly backward: Journalists and journalism are the victims, not the cause, of the industry's shaken state.

We've lost readers, to be sure. But that's been happening for decades, and not necessarily because of editorial quality. Disagree? Then try answering this: Did editorial quality kill afternoon newspapers?

Contemporary newspapers have their own problems, but the usual analysis about what ails us misses the point. Let's take a quick tour:

Fact No. 1: Despite everything you've heard, newspapers, even these days, remain remarkably popular. Some readers have left us (and many, it should be said, were dropped by cost-conscious publishers who no longer wanted to deliver papers to far-flung subscribers). But what's largely overlooked in the gloom is how many people newspapers reach each day. Almost 50 million buy one daily, and nearly 117 million read one, according to the Newspaper Association of America's research. Throw in 66 million unique visitors to newspaper Web sites each month, and the conclusion is inescapable: Lots of people want what newspaper journalists produce.

Fact No. 2: Newspaper readers--so often derided as old and unattractive to advertisers--are actually better educated and more affluent than TV news viewers. The average newspaper, for example, reaches about seven in 10 households with incomes of more than $60,000 annually, compared with about four in 10 for CNN and Fox News, according to Mediamark Research.

Fact No. 3: Every traditional news medium has lost market share, and some have lost more than newspapers. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, ratings for late local newscasts on network-affiliated stations across the country were 6.7 percent lower during the November 2007 sweeps than the previous year--a faster decline than newspaper circulation (down 2.6 percent daily, 3.5 percent on Sunday) during roughly the same period. This isn't a one-time aberration, either. Local TV stations in Washington, D.C., for example, have seen the ratings for their 6 p.m. newscasts plunge 37 percent from 1997 to 2007. Over the same period, the Washington Post's Sunday circulation has dropped 16 percent. Yet the local TV news business remains relatively strong, with far fewer layoffs and cutbacks and less end-of-an-era weariness than in most print newsrooms.

So if the problem with newspapers really isn't too few customers, or too many undesirable ones, why are they so threatened these days?

The problem has little to do with the reporting, packaging and selling of information. It's much bigger than that. The gravest threats include the flight of classified advertisers, the deterioration of retail advertising and the indebtedness of newspaper owners. Wrap all these factors together and you've set in motion the kind of slash-and-burn tactics that will hasten, not forestall, the end.

For decades, newspapers enjoyed what economists call a "scarcity" advantage. In most cities, there was only one outfit that could profitably collect, print and distribute the day's news, and it could raise prices even as it delivered fewer readers each year. …

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