Newspapers are dying, but the news is thriving.

Media criticism.
June 24 2006 8:13 AM

The Incredible Shrinking Newspaper

Newspapers are dying, but the news is thriving.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel. Click image to expand.

That high-pitched squealing you hear in the background is the sound of the American newspaper shrinking.

The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and scores of smaller papers have downsized their staffs in recent months. About 70 newsroom staffers and 100 non-newsroom employees are exiting the Post through the buyout door, according to the paper's June 1 account.

The physical product is shriveling as well. The Wall Street Journal will snip three inches from its width starting in 2007, adopting the liposuctioned profiles of the similarly slimmed-down Post, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. This week the New York Times looked in the mirror and contemplated a diet, saying it might reduce page width after having already switched to lighter-weight paper stock. *

Everywhere, newspapers are chucking stock tables, eliminating such once-venerable features as horse-racing coverage and their own editorial cartoonists, and consolidating or killing sections. For example, the New York Times just axed its Sunday television listings guide and has consolidated its Sunday regional sections into one. Much to their distress, newspapers are shedding profitable classified and display advertising. Evaporating circulation, shuttered foreign bureaus, and scaled-back Washington and state capital bureaus complete the miniaturization of the American daily.

If newspapers get any smaller, you'll have to read them with a magnifying glass.

Publicly owned newspapers, most of which are handsomely profitable, blame Wall Street for the dinkification, saying the stock market punishes newspaper companies when their publications don't earn the accustomed 20 percent profit margin. To be fair, the seeds of the great newspaper decline were planted more than 80 years ago, when radio challenged the newspaper's status as the only mass news, entertainment, and advertising medium. Radio immediately cut into the newspaper audience, beginning the long, slow erosion of readership. The emergence of every new media technology—the car radio, television, the portable radio, FM, cable, the VCR, the Internet, the cell phone, satellite radio and TV, the podcast, et al.—has delivered another kick to newspapers. (Disclosure: I work for one of the disruptive technologies, Slate magazine on the Web, which is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Nothing will bring the traditional newspaper back to its post-WWII position of media dominance—not color printing, not kids' pages, not expanded high-school sports coverage, not service journalism, nor bingo games on Page One. The newspaper habit—which nearly every American had when it was the only mass media—must be learned. But given today's many alternatives, younger potential customers have skipped the lesson and migrated to other media forms for edification and amusement. Newspapers attract fewer eyeballs today and will attract fewer tomorrow. But the bad news is only relative. Slate's Daniel Gross, writing of the decline of the network newscast audience, notes that advertisers still covet a diminished mass audience in a world where all mass mediums are fracturing. Network newscasts "are going to be dying for a long time, and dying quite profitably," he wrote. The same applies to most newspapers, so save your tears.

Yet not every newspaper will die an extended, lucrative death. Titles with national advertisers and distribution, such as the New York Times (1.1 million circulation) and USA Today (2.2 million circulation), have natural advantages. Small, local papers can survive by burrowing even deeper into their communities. Papers published in growing Sunbelt cities can hitch a ride on the local booms, notes the Wharton School's online business journal, but papers like the Philadelphia Inquirer may collapse. The Inky can't generate the revenues needed to do the sort of ultralocal, street-by-street coverage that will be demanded of small-town newspapers, and its readership would reject something with the worldly cachet of the New York Times.

Newspapers whose readers are as much constituents as they are readers are the best bets to thrive as they decline. The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times will remain musts for a long time. Luckily for the Post, it should continue to be required reading for government employees, lawyers, lobbyists, other journalists, and the new-class types at nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, and universities. Might one of the Detroit dailies eventually navigate a profitable path out of the decline by focusing more heavily on the auto industry? Perhaps. But it's hard to imagine the Los Angeles Times maintaining anything near its current 850,000 circulation by transforming itself into an entertainment-industry and aerospace daily. Who's to say that Southern California wouldn't be better served by several smaller dailies, multiple news sites on the Web, and other electronic media?

Whatever you do, don't mistake the decline of newspapers with the decline of journalism. Much of what we're witnessing is the delayed right-sizing of newspapers and newspaper publisher and editor egos in the multimedia age. Many papers, the Los Angeles Times in particular, are still paying for expanding their circulation areas too far beyond their geographic cores. The closures of foreign bureaus and downsizing of Washington offices by newspapers are much lamented by journalists, but how essential are they in an age when any reader can call up on his screen free coverage by the top U.S. dailies and the foreign press?

Like the ailing—but much alive—character prematurely tossed onto the meat wagon in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, newspapers are right to shout, "I'm not dead!" In their dying, the best newspapers are plotting—and experiencing—rebirths as multiplatform news companies. They're building out their Web sites, investing in free daily tabloids, partnering more extensively with radio and TV, sending advertiser-supported news to cell phones, and frantically devising business models to make the new equation work.

As much as people may have given up the newspaper habit, their appetite for news has become insatiable, news companies are learning. The 1.1 million-circulation New York Times served 25 million unique readers in April via its NYTimes.com Web site, according to its own logs. Washingtonpost.com, which serves 80 percent of its audience outside the D.C. area, has made the Washington Post a national newspaper.

To bring the story back to home, the Washington Post Co.'s washingtonpost.com now employs an editorial staff of 65, and the editorial masthead of its free Express tabloid numbers at least a dozen. These jobs didn't exist 10 years ago, and they just about equal the head count lost in the recent Post buyouts. The changing landscape puts new media in the position of the mortician who said to the corpse, "Sorry, pal, but your dying is my living."

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Send mortician jokes to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. EarthLink folks: Turn off your spam filters if you want me to write back.)

A version of this piece appears in the Washington Post Outlook section.

Correction, June 25, 2006: The original version of this story stated that the New York Times was contemplating a switch to lighter-weight paper stock. In fact, the switch has already been made. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.