The continuing media recession has recently doomed afternoon papers in San Diego, Richmond, Charleston and other cities, and more are likely to follow. It's a painful subject.
Those deaths, and the prospects of others in the coming months, have provoked hand-wringing about the decline of newspaper competition. But, if such despair is understandable, it is not altogether warranted.
Most of the doomed papers long ago had merged their news staffs with their morning rivals, so that the afternoon product was not competitive in any significant sense. And it was actually an increase in competition that was a fundamental cause – rather than the result – of the afternoon deaths.
While the recession gets the blame, all it did was hasten the inevitable. Not only are the remaining afternoon newspapers owned commonly with morning papers at risk, but independent second newspapers in the dozen cities that still have commercial competition could also be in trouble. The fact is, the nation has been moving toward one-newspaper cities for 40 years.
Beginning in the 1950s, several developments began the erosion. Most important, of course, was the spread of television, which captured an ever-growing part of the leisure time people had spent reading newspapers, especially afternoon papers. Local TV news competed directly with afternoon papers; the rapid growth of local radio added news competition as well. Television and radio also captured a growing share of ad revenue that newspapers need to survive; newsstand sales, while important, have contributed only 20 percent to 30 percent of total revenue. Television's impact on those newspapers that survived the initial onslaught in the 1950s and 1960s has been less dramatic, but it continues.
Two other factors compounded the difficulties of afternoon newspapers, especially in those cities with more than one newspaper: the explosive growth of suburbs and the development of modern printing technology that lowered costs for newcomers to the business.
The first of these developments transformed what had been compact markets into broader ones that incorporated nearby cities and, in some cases, entire counties. Since much of this market expansion was generated when the middle class – the heart of newspaper readership – fled decaying cities, urban newspapers were forced to expand their market in an effort to hold their readers.
The creation of sprawling markets had an impact on all city newspapers. It meant that what previously had been a city that supported two or more metro dailies now became a larger market that incorporated nearby communities – many of which had long supported their own dailies. Philadelphia, for example, gradually became a market that incorporated all or part of five counties in Pennsylvania and three counties in New Jersey. In those counties, 11 dailies published in competition, at least in their own centers of influence, against the larger Philadelphia newspapers. Similarly, the market in Seattle grew into one that included six daily newspapers instead of just the two within city limits. San Francisco expanded to include 15 dailies beside the metro papers and Los Angeles grew to 11. The list goes on and on.
While the suburban and metropolitan newspapers did remain different in scope and content, there was a redistribution of circulation and advertising that the metro newspapers once had to themselves. Afternoon newspapers had already suffered the brunt of television's encroachment into evening leisure hours; with suburban sprawl and traffic congestion, it became difficult to deliver a timely newspaper beyond city limits.
The revolution in printing technology assured that even those suburbs under the big-city umbrella that did not have newspapers of their own would now have them. They usually arrived in the form of free-distribution weeklies started by entrepreneurs attracted by growth of communities that metro dailies could not cover in detail. The growth of this suburban press took another bite out of the available pool of readers and advertising dollars.
Many independent afternoon newspapers fell to the wayside – including The Washington Star , the Philadelphia Bulletin and The Cleveland Press . But the developments also affected markets in which one company owned both the morning and afternoon papers. Throughout the last 15 years there has been a steady stream of consolidations of two newspapers into one as afternoon papers lost circulation and became a drag on financial performance. Shutting down an afternoon paper usually cuts personnel costs and always saves money in distribution and newsprint.
The closing of any newspaper is a sad event, but unfortunately it will be recurring until market forces run their course. And while competition between metro dailies has diminished, it has been replaced by dogfights with expanded suburban papers and local TV and radio. This may not be newspaper competition as we once knew it, but it's competition nonetheless. l