The beginning of the end for newspapers.

Media criticism.
May 29 2009 5:10 PM

The Beginning of the End for Newspapers

It was game over for metro dailies by 1965, writes David R. Davies.

The gut wagon has come for the daily newspaper.

According to Newspaper Death Watch, 11 metropolitan dailies have folded since March 2007, and that's not counting the transmogrification of such titles as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Christian Science Monitor, which have migrated their daily versions to the Web. Meanwhile, the Hearst Corp. has threatened to shutter its money-losing San Francisco Chronicle unless worker concessions are forthcoming; the Detroit dailies have cut back on home delivery to just three days *; the tottering New York Times Co. has been forced to borrow hundreds of millions from a Mexican robber baron; and the bankrupt Tribune chain appears to be drowning in its own debt.

A recent Wall Street Journal feature charts the most recent closures, bankruptcies, layoffs, and reduced print days experienced by the nation's 100 top newspapers. But for the academic diagnosis of what ails the newspaper patient, see David R. Davies' 2006 book The Postwar Decline of American Newspapers, 1945-1965.

In Davies' take, the industry's decline beganafter a short boom following the end of WWII. These initial profits made newspapers "complacent—almost defeatist—about the changes facing their industry," he writes. The greatest challenge of the postwar era was the change in demographics. Newspapers have traditionally thrived on population density: It's easier to cover a geographically compact region and to deliver the product inside a smaller radius. But as the out-migration to the fast-growing suburbs accelerated, so did the metro dailies' problems.

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According industry figures presented by Davies, two-thirds of all newspaper circulation in 1945 belonged to the big dailies in the 10 most populous areas. By 1962, these newspapers commanded just half of all circulation, even though the population in the top 10 areas rose 45.2 percent during that 17-year stretch. Total newspaper circulation grew in the postwar decades but "not at a rate that matched the rapid growth of population." In 1946, the average U.S. household read 1.33 newspapers a day—by 1963, just 1.07 per household, Davies notes.

The industry excuse for lagging behind population growth was that the baby boomers—still kids at that point—represented a disproportionate share of the population. The publishers theorized that as boomers aged, they would pick up the newspaper habit, at which point newspaper circulation would explode. Publishers even established "newspapers in schools" programs in hopes of hooking young readers and grooming them for harvest. But that strategy largely failed. Likewise, frantic efforts to produce "zoned editions" for suburban readers with substantial local coverage did not succeed. With the exception of Newsday, Davies is disdainful of the journalism produced by the suburban press that took root and grew in the postwar years.

In the two decades after WWII, the number of dailies remained stable, but that figure masks what was happening behind the scenes. Metropolitan dailies were either folding or merging with other dailies at about the same rate as suburban dailies were starting.

Other bad news: Television was poaching the newspaper audience and its advertisers; unions were willing to strike for higher wages and laxer work rules even if it would kill their newspapers; and wishy-washy publishers dallied in the introduction of cost-saving technology.

Blinding publishers to their decline, Davies writes, were the monopoly profits many surviving newspapers commanded, giving them no incentive to take journalistic and business risks. The increases in circulation—modest considering the absolute increase in population and the demise of competing dailies—also convinced publishers that they were wild successes. "Newspaper may have remained the dominant local advertising medium, but their declining circulation penetration underscored their declining importance to readers," he writes.

There's a bit of overkill to Davies' sweeping, negative appraisal of the newspaper industry. For instance, Otis Chandler took smart, gutsy action as publisher of the Los Angeles Times in the first half of the 1960s and turned his newspaper into a modern powerhouse. But by and large, Davies accurately captures the miscues of a conservative industry. Newspapers barely held their own in the boom years of 1945 through 1965, and they've been paying for it ever since.

******

Davies acknowledges that the metro newspapers eventually invested. He criticizes them for waiting too long to open their purses. Invest in my Twitter before it's too late and send e-mail to me at slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Correction, May 30, 2009: The original version of this article mistakenly stated that the Detroit dailies had ended home delivery. The two papers have cut back from seven days of home delivery to three. (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.

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