Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The death of newspapers

UPDATED: Jack Shafer notes the positive side of buyouts for senior writers (e.g., 61-year-old Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times), suggesting that this helps "replenish a news organization's juices by bringing down the median age of reporters and editors and making it possible for his publication to add a lower-paying entry-level slot."

Except it doesn't really work that way. The massive waves of newspaper layoffs being reported in recent years mean only one thing: Shrinking newsrooms.

There are fewer and fewer jobs for print journalists of any age, young or old. With fewer entry level jobs, and little prospect for career advancement -- upward mobility in a declining industry is tough -- the field of print journalism no longer attracts top writers. Nowadays, kids who have top verbal SAT scores usually end up going to law school.

Poke around the blogosphere a bit, and discover how many top bloggers have law degrees. It ain't just Instapundit.

* * * * *
The Seattle Times announces a workforce reduction "of approximately 200 positions through a combination of freezing open positions and a significant number of layoffs."

It's not the first round of bad news in Seattle, either:

Today's cuts come on top of $21 million the newspaper sliced from its budget earlier this year. In January, the company said it was laying off 17 employees, eliminating 69 positions through attrition, and eliminating or combining some newspaper sections.
Vanderleun gloats:

Of course, the real elephant drooling in the room of newspapers like the Seattle Times these days is "the forgotten reader." These are the potential readers who, because of the unremitting liberal tone and slant of the Times in both the news hole and on the editorial page, loathe the Times and the whole sector of Seattle society it represents. . . .
And yet the Seattle Times, as well as numerous other newspapers now dying in the US, never ever cops to its point of view as the reason why it is failing.
Ah, if only it were that simple. But the fact is that what we are witnessing is not just the death of liberal newspapers, nor merely the death of Old Media -- insert obligatory blogospheric sneer -- we are witnessing the death of reading.

For at least 20 years, and perhaps longer than that, young people have been turning away from the printed word as a source of information and entertainment. Forget about newspapers for a minute and think about novels.

When I was in middle school and high school, a hot new paperback novel (or non-fiction bestseller) would be purchased, shared and eagerly read. Mario Puzo's The Godfather, William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist, Vincent Bugliosi's Helter Skelter -- these are just a few of the popular books I recall reading back in the early '70s, and lots of other teenagers did the same.

Nobody assigned us to read these books. In fact, we sometimes got in trouble for reading them. We either bought them ourselves or borrowed them from friends. I remember bugging a friend to hurry up and finish Helter Skelter so I could borrow it, and then being told I'd likewise have to hurry and finish it, because another friend had called dibs on it next.

These books weren't great literature, but they were at least books -- not books for kids, but books written for an adult readership -- and reading books is a habit that, if formed at an early age, is likely to last a lifetime.

The same is true of newspapers and magazines. We always had the daily paper in our home when I was a child, and Reader's Digest arrived every month. Every day, I'd have to wait for my father to finish reading the paper before I'd get my turn; and once a month, I'd similarly wait my turn to read my mother's Reader's Digest.

Having been in the newspaper business since 1986, I have unfortunately had a ringside seat to watch the industry's decline. And the reason I know that liberal bias is not a sufficient explanation for this decline is the fact that small "hometown" newspapers -- which have never reflected the liberalism that plagues the major metro dailies -- have suffered equally, if not worse, from the decline.

People don't read as much anymore. Period.

You can slice or dice that anyway you please. You can talk about online news until you're blue in the face, but it won't change the fact that Americans now read much less than they once did.

What is happening to newspaper circulation is simply this: As older readers die off, they are not being replaced by younger readers.

The reason for that is that young people -- and by that, I mean, people under 40 -- don't read nearly as much as do their elders. And it has nothing do with print vs. online. If you are under 40 and reading news online, you are an exception, a rarity, among your peers.

Why has the reading habit declined among those under 40? First it was cable TV, then it was the VCR, now the DVD -- and you could add video games to that list -- the increased availability of on-demand video has accustomed young people to process information that way. Just as reading is habit-forming, TV is also habit-forming, and the TV habit has flourished at the expense of reading.

This is why so many young people now say they get their information about current events and politics from "The Tonight Show" or "The Daily Show." If it's not on TV, they don't know about it.

Cable TV became a mass phenomenon in the 1980s, when today's 40-year-olds were teenagers, and since they could choose from so many channels, they grew accustomed to watching whatever they wanted. Thus died the family TV ritual of watching the 6 o'clock news.

So not only are young people less habituated to reading, they are not even interested in news -- that is, not "news" of the old-fashioned Huntley-and-Brinkley kind: Legislation, diplomacy, war. The "news" that young people want is Britney's rehab and Angelina's pregnancy -- in other words, E!

If I were a newspaper executive, I could think of some ways to try to maintain circulation -- more Britney photos! -- but ultimately there are limits to how any print medium can remain relevant in an age where the video image rules.

And if you're an under-40 person who is highly literate, reads the newspaper daily, subscribes to three magazines, and never watches Jon Stewart, please don't e-mail me to rage against me as a clueless old fuddy-duddy. You are exceptional -- and are no doubt intelligent enough to know that my generalizations about your generation are true.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post, nowadays most of the readers looking for online editions and all the major publishers are already presenting their publications through web. Publishing over web, RSS, social media, pod castings, mobile are the new trends. Companies like are helping to the print publisher to distribute over the above mediums. Having online edition will give more benefits as per the recent survey predictions.