Contributing Monkie Sarah Backhouse
Published on September 8, 2008
Newspapers are making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Average daily circulations are down at most of the nation’s top 25 papers including The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and LA Times. The 3.6% decline “represents sales of around 50 million, the lowest level since 1949 when newspapers moved 50.9 million copies”. Good news for the trees; bad news for our brains. The only exceptions are the two largest national dailies, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, which have enjoyed modest increases.
Falling circs are old news. Newspaper sales have been on the skids since the 80s. However, the magnitude of recent declines have been surprising and the ensuing staff cutbacks painful. “48.7% of the 102,120 jobs eliminated in the newspaper industry since 1990 were lost in the last three years”. A staggering statistic with no end in sight. Timothy Egan of the New York Times observes: “Last week, almost 1,000 jobs were eliminated in the American newspaper industry, perhaps the bloodiest week yet of a year where many papers are fighting for their lives. You read about the great names — the Baltimore Sun, the Boston Globe, the San Jose Mercury News — as if reading the obituary page. Rich cities like San Francisco can no longer support a profitable daily paper.”
There’s a fundamental shift taking place in how and where we get our information. Newsosaur.com’s Alan Mutter says: “The industry is well into a period where its economics are governed by new and unprecedented social, demographic and technological developments that will alter forever the behavior of both advertisers and consumers”. Most of the shake-up can be attributed to the advent of the internet. The convenience of accessing our favorite newspapers online, or scanning headlines from several papers at once on news aggregators (all without getting inky fingers) has rendered the “hard copy” nigh on obsolete. And here’s the rub.
“The Internet may kill the daily newspaper as we know it, but it’s allowed some papers to increase their readership by tenfold,” says Egan. “The Web is the future. And yet, because online advertising accounts for only about 10 percent of total ad revenue, newspapers are hemorrhaging money. In its present form, and even in best-case projections, the Web format will never generate enough money to keep viable reporting staffs afloat at some of the nation’s biggest papers”.
So these could be salad days for us news junkies. We’re able to benefit from top-notch print journalism without having to pay a dime. But what happens when our experienced newshounds and investigative journalists are laid off? What does that mean for the future standard of journalism?
Square eyes may argue, “but we’ve always got television”. Sure, we’ve got the supercilious anchors and shouty pundits on CNN, CNBC, FOX and other 24 hour news channels, filling airtime with quantities of sensationalism. Then there’s the national nightly news, not to mention the frankly laughable local “news” fronted by what appears to be porn stars. However, when Jon Stewart’s satirical news show, The Daily Show, on Comedy Central offers the most “fair and balanced” coverage, you know things are amiss. Thank god (and the queen) for BBC America.
So while the future looks bleak for news lovers, its downright maudlin the news gathers. Here’s Timothy Egan again: “Print reporters (are forced to) strap on the old Webcam, charge up their podcast recorder, grab their notebook and dutifully try to cover a story that now needs to be presented in three formats, or more”. You know what they say, “jack of all trade, master of none”. Hang on. As a multi-tasking host/producer/writer, I think I’ve just been hoisted by my own petard.