Chronicle of the Newspaper Death Foretold
The newspaper industry knew it was doomed 30 years ago.
A good three decades before the newspaper industry began blaming its declining fortunes on the Web, the iPod, and game machines, it knew it was in huge trouble. In the mid-1970s, two of its trade associations (which have since merged)—the American Newspaper Publishers Association and the Newspaper Advertising Bureau—sought to diagnose the causes of tumbling newspaper readership since the mid-1960s and recommend remedies.
The associations formed the Newspaper Readership Project, which sociologist/marketing specialist Leo Bogart helped direct. Bogart's 1991 book, Preserving the Press: How Daily Newspapers Mobilized to Keep Their Readers, portrays an industry that knew exactly what ailed it but refused to adapt to a shifting marketplace. Change a few dates and a few names in a couple chapters from Preserving the Press, and you could republish the whole thing as "breaking news."
Bogart and the project rat out the usual guilty parties for falling circulation—radio and television. But they also cite city-to-suburb migration (and the distribution difficulties caused by metro sprawl), growing transience that prevents people from establishing roots that in turn nurture the newspaper habit, and changes in work and commuting patterns, as well as the flaccid editorial product in many markets.
The ideas ultimately advanced by the Newspaper Readership Project were so universally accepted that Los Angeles Times media reporter David Shaw was already filing a preview of its findings and recommendations in a Page One Nov. 26, 1976, feature. In the lede to "Newspapers Challenged as Never Before," Shaw asks:
Are you now holding an endangered species in your hands?
At the time of Shaw's extinction warning, the number of U.S. households and the combined circulation of all daily newspapers was almost at par—about 70 million households versus 60 million in circulation. Today, the number of U.S. households exceeds 100 million, but daily circulation is flat or down a couple million from the 1970s.
Shaw quotes Times Publisher Otis Chandler saying that he doubts the Times—or any other metro daily—is "really essential" to even 50 percent of its readers, something even the most depressed publisher working today would never say. And remember, the Los Angeles Times of that era was a circulation lion.
The solutions proposed by Preserving the Press and Shaw's article read like the standard prescriptions written today: Make an attempt to "reconnect" with readers, who feel alienated from newspapers. Make coverage more local. Hook kids when they're young. Let readers "sound off" about issues on special pages of the paper. Connect with and hire minorities. Expand the weather report. Introduce or expand op-ed pages. Spice up the design and print more color. Run more lifestyle, consumer, and personal-finance articles. Chase potential readers—and advertisers—into the deep suburbs.
Is there a metropolitan newspaper that hasn't taken all of this medicine? Is there one that isn't taking maintenance doses of these meds today? And yet newspaper circulation continues to dribble down.
Shaw reports that newspaper people thought the increases in leisure time would benefit their industry. To a degree, that played out, especially when readers devoted themselves to fat Sunday papers. But as societal wealth increased, Shaw writes, many readers found they could afford other leisure pursuits they found more compelling than reading the news and completing the crossword puzzle: travel, watching movies on VCRs, dining out, making long-distance phone calls, groovin' to a Walkman, and recreational shopping.