Newspapers are grappling with real—and serious—problems, but they also have contributed to their own decline.
By John Morton
John Morton (firstname.lastname@example.org), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.
Few things are as they used to be, so it's no surprise that newspapers are among the traditional institutions that have changed greatly over the years.
Looking back over my own close scrutiny of newspapers, which covers roughly the last half of the 20th century to the present, I am struck most of all by a decline in what I refer to as the "standing" of newspapers.
Standing encompasses many things: prevalence, respect, influence, personality, reputation and, most of all, relevance. Some of the decline was inevitable, due to the emergence of competing media such as television and the Internet and changes in the economic underpinning of the newspaper business. But some of it was self-inflicted.
One way to measure prevalence is to tally the number and circulation of newspapers. In 1950 there were 1,772 dailies with a total circulation of 53.8 million and 549 Sunday papers with 46.6 million. But since 1980, the number and circulation of dailies has declined fairly steadily, slipping to 1,452 last year, with circulation down to 53.3 million — below where it was 55 years ago, despite nearly a doubling in the size of the national population. The number of Sunday papers has increased, to 914 last year, but their circulation began to decline in the late 1990s and dropped to 55.3 million last year.
The drop in the number of dailies, especially in the early years, reflected the emergence of television as a competitor for leisure time and advertising, which helped kill off numerous afternoon papers.
While the decline in the number of dailies and the number of competitive markets has generally not helped the quality of newspaper journalism, it has had a salutary effect on the financial health of those that remain. Profitability of newspapers has improved fairly steadily over the last 30 years. In the first six months of this year, not a particularly good one for the newspaper business, the average operating profit was a robust 18 percent.
The other elements that make up standing — respect, influence and the like — are subjective and difficult to quantify, but there is no denying that numerous surveys of readers and nonreaders show lower levels of confidence in and respect for newspapers.
This is due at least in part to the growing ideological partisanship of the nation: Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, secular and evangelical, anti-death penalty and pro-death penalty, pro-choice and anti-abortion — the list could go on and on. These divisions have become very intense. Most newspapers try to cover contentious issues even-handedly, which, while virtuous, tends to offend both sides.
But some of the decline in standing can be blamed on newspapers themselves. While the drop in the number of newspapers was inevitable because of economic forces beyond their control, other facets of decline were self-imposed.
Mostly gone now are dailies that sought to extend their circulation and influence over a wide region, in some cases entire states. Large chains acquired many such papers and quickly eliminated circulation much beyond a paper's home market, for the simple reason that the papers spent more to print and deliver distant circulation than they made from it. Also largely scrapped were the news bureaus that supported the circulation.
Concentration of ownership has created a newspaper industry that puts high profits over quaint notions about a newspaper's obligation to be a beacon of knowledge for as wide an area as possible. The standing of these newspapers inevitably declined.
Similarly, the quest for profit has diminished many newspapers' efforts to bring their own stamp to covering events throughout the world. In recent years many newspapers have announced the closing of foreign bureaus; Newsday and the Baltimore Sun are two recent examples. True, major newspapers will parachute journalists into hot spots like Iraq, but the nuanced reporting from foreign locales that once graced many newspapers is increasingly hard to find (see "The Limits of the Parachute," October/November).
Newspapers also have become smaller and less imposing as the industry has adopted narrower web widths and lighter-weight newsprint to save money. Even the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, long holdouts, are joining the trend.
Finally, many newspapers have started to undermine their dignity by offering up parts of their section fronts, and even front pages, to advertisers. It was always comforting to pick up a newspaper and peruse a front page and section fronts unsullied by advertising — room enough for that on inside pages. Again, the quest for profit.
Many of these developments, considered individually, may not seem of great consequence. Collectively, they remind me of death by a thousand cuts. All have contributed to the decline in the standing of newspapers at a time when, more than ever, they need to stand tall.