Chronicle of the newspaper death foretold.

Media criticism.
Nov. 30 2006 6:44 PM

Chronicle of the Newspaper Death Foretold

The newspaper industry knew it was doomed 30 years ago.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

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."

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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.

Fresh thinking about what ails newspapers arrived in yesterday's (Nov. 29) Wall Street Journal, where staffer William M. Bulkeley contributed a column titled "The Internet Allows Consumers to Trim Wasteful Purchases." Bulkeley explains how the photographic film industry, encyclopedia publishers, the music industry, and the advertising industry feasted on buyers by forcing them to purchase things they didn't want—prints of all 24 shots from their camera or a whole album to secure one favorite song, for example. "The business models required customers to pay for detritus to get the good stuff," Bulkeley writes. But digital cameras, the Web, iTunes, and search-related advertising have stripped those industries of their power to charge for detritus.

Bulkeley could have easily applied the wisdom of his lesson more broadly to newspapers. It's not that the complete gestalt of local, state, national, and international news plus sports, comics, classified, opinion, and hints on fashion, home, entertainment, and food isn't still useful. It is. But given a choice, and the economic means to make a choice, many buyers prefer to make an unbundled purchase. Unbundling the news they want from the news they don't want is what the Web allows readers to do now.

For decades, newspapers—and other media—prospered by exploiting what former hedge-fund manager Andy Kessler calls EPILIT, which is short for Entertainment (or Editorial) and Perishable Information Leading Indirectly to a Transaction. The model works to the media moguls' advantage, he writes, as long as the number of distribution "pipes" (newspapers, TV networks, radio stations, cable channels, phone lines, etc.) can be controlled. When anybody can join the EPILIT party—exactly what the Web encourages—the monopoly profits enjoyed by media moguls suffer. And make no mistake about it, American newspaper publishers sucked every available dollar out of their advertisers and readers when they occupied the commanding heights.

Kessler's cheeky essay from October, "Media 2.Uh-Oh," predicts that because nobody will be able to control the pipes in the future the way they once did, all the media markets will be in play and remain in play for some time. The turmoil experienced most acutely by the newspaper and music industries has now spread to the television industry, which is cutting costs and restructuring. (See this story about the collapse of the 11 p.m. news ratings in Washington, D.C.)

If you agree with me that the newspaper business has been on a slow, unstoppable train ride to hell for many decades and that the Web has only accelerated its descent, then you'll enjoy another article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal.

"Buy This Newspaper!" by editorial-page staffer Holman W. Jenkins Jr. (sorry, only the first paragraph is on the Web) regards Jack Welch's offer to buy the Boston Globe, the coming breakup of the Tribune Co., and Wall Street's snipping at the New York Times Co. as "straws in the breeze" portending a time when newspaper companies stop trimming page size and get rid of paper pages altogether for the Web.

What's preventing anybody from going first, of course, is the $45 billion ad market that generates profit margins of up to 20 percent, Jenkins writes. Yes, newspaper Web advertising is growing, but not fast enough to cover the declines in print advertising. A paper gets about one-tenth or one-twentieth the advertising revenue for a Web reader as it does a print reader, he notes.

To thrive, news companies need to convince advertisers to pay much higher rates for readers who "value their time at tens or hundreds of dollars an hour lingering on newspaper Web sites for perhaps half an hour everyday, and they're not just channel flicking. They're engaged," Jenkins writes. As I've written before, people may be giving up the newspaper habit, but their appetite for news is growing. The 1.1 million circulation for the print New York Times served 25 million unique readers in April via its Web site, according to the company's own logs.

I'm not the type to predict the future, if only because I'm so bad at it. But print editions of newspapers, which saw the endgame coming 30 years ago and did everything they could to forestall it, need to figure out what they're best at and double down in those realms. To give one example, if newspapers think they're in the editorial business, the slimming of the business pages at most dailies indicates that the standard business section is doomed and the copy should be folded into the rest of the paper to make room for a section the masses really want to read. Sports sections that refuse to retool themselves as the smart supplement to ESPN can kiss their pages goodbye.

If newspapers think they're primarily in the advertising business, they could take Mark Cuban's sharp advice from this week and redeploy their ad staffs to broker Web advertising wherever they can find a place for it, not just on their own Web sites. What they'll probably do instead is form a new intra-industry Newspaper Readership Project.

******

To paraphrase Samuel Beckett, the day you die will be like any other—only shorter. Send your best Beckettism to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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

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