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Black and White and Read No More

A longtime reporter observes the twilight of American newspapers.


Illustration Source

On an Amtrak train rattling from Washington to New York while I was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal in 2010, I had a strange visit from the ghosts of society’s future.

Sitting in business class with ink-stained fingers from reading a stack of physical newspapers – the Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post – I glanced around the cabin and realized that I was the only person reading one. All of my neighbors were pecking away at Amazon Kindles or Apple iPads. In this container on rails, the microcosm of well-connected travelers showed what kind of “Star Trek” world in which we are, or soon will be, living.

I felt like a bumpkin. I was the youngest person in the cabin, obsessively digesting the oldest form of media. So I began watching how my neighbors used their Kindles and iPads. They flitted back and forth, like distracted youngsters, between email, news sites, books and video games like Angry Birds. I convinced my Luddite self that I was having a more unique, directed literary experience by reading a printed product, put together by smart people in a more cohesive order.

Today, die-hard newspaper readers may feel – like I did – increasingly shut out in a digital world. It may seem as if they are playing a banjo on stage with Metallica or riding a horse to watch the Indy 500. Or, perhaps, it seems as if they’re listening to vinyl records when CDs and MP3 players have passed them by.

In truth, technology is rendering the printed newspaper obsolete. There’s a silver lining, however. You will still earn style points for reading print. Newspapers and books will increasingly become designer, boutique items and relics of a past age – a product demanded only by nostalgia, artistic value, political incorrectness (for killing trees in a digital world) and scarcity in the future.

Let’s face it: the strongest part of the U.S. economy is driven by innovation at big technology firms – Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter and other players big and small. These companies are often among the top 10 market capitalizations for U.S. publicly traded companies.

They are remaking entire industries – music, film, TV, news, education, shopping – in ways both good and bad. They are changing the way we live. And their creative disruptions have upended the way people can access and deliver journalistic information, as well as the way advertisers pay to reach those audiences. Google and others have taken advertising out of the hands of newspapers and spread it over a much wider swath of media outlets, many of which are less prestigious and journalistically robust than U.S. newspapers.

The numbers for newspapers are grim. Nationwide, advertiser spending on newspapers slid to $22.8 billion in 2010, from a peak of $48.6 billion per year in 2000, according to the Newspaper Association of America. That’s still a lot of money, but not enough to support the 1,000-person staffs that some national and metropolitan newspapers employed, nor to cover the costs of cutting down trees, buying ink by the barrel, printing news on paper and delivering the product all over the United States or a major city. And 14 percent of all newspaper ad dollars shifted to the online column in 2011, up from 12 percent in 2010. Unfortunately, newspapers make a smaller percentage of revenue from online advertisements, which are in the hands of Google and other middlemen. Meanwhile, Google reported $28 billion in revenue from advertising in 2010, up 23 percent from $22.8 billion in 2009.

Paid circulation for U.S. daily newspapers totaled 45.6 billion in 2009, down from the peak of 63.3 billion in 1984, according to Editor & Publisher. The number of newspapers in the United States dropped to 1,387 in 2009 from 1,878 in 1940, according to Editor & Publisher International Year Book. Cities such as Oakland, Denver, Tucson, Cincinnati and Seattle have all lost at least one major newspaper in recent years. It is worthwhile, perhaps, to reflect on what we are losing as newspapers continue to die.

Failure to Innovate. When I was growing up, my family clipped out articles any time our names or pictures were in the newspaper for an achievement: new job, photo of kids at the fair, sports results. The newspaper was a hub of our lives and community.

When I was about 12 I landed my first job, as a newspaper carrier for the Rapid City Journal. Every morning, a car dropped off two stacks of newspapers in front of my house around 6 a.m. My sister, Rachel, and I would wake up, count the papers and glance at headlines as we delivered them on our neighborhood routes through rain, snow and summer heat. We fended off pit bulls and occasional shady characters asking for a paper. Once a month, we’d go around with a small brown canvas bag to collect the payment of $15 or so from each customer. Some of our customers regularly gave us tips of $2, $5, $10. Some gave us candy. One family put fruitcakes in a mailbox for us at Christmastime. Another woman wrote a tribute to us to the newspaper’s “Letters to the Editor.”

On Saturdays, I knocked on doors of nonsubscribers, aiming to persuade them to join up. It often worked, and the percentage of subscribers on my route jumped from 50 to 80. The newspaper gave me prizes – free tickets to concerts, films, the county fair, and six-packs of Coke – for my sales efforts. To a teenager, it was the best job in the world. It allowed me to meet my neighbors and have a relationship with them. I felt a sense of community.

It’s partly the fault of newspaper companies themselves for the increasingly lost sense of community. They failed to innovate ahead of technological advances. Instead of being the engine for change in the way people use and consume news, they were often riding in the caboose of the train. Many newspapers are still standing, still reporting, and still printing for their declining, and paying, audience. And they are trying to figure out how to migrate their news products over to websites and mobile devices in a way that makes money.

Newspapers were flush with cash for decades before the Internet arrived. Some editors have compared the profit margins of newspapers before 2000 to selling drugs. In some parts of the world, such as India, Poland and Germany, people are still reading newspapers, and normal profit margins remain. But the United States is seeing a different picture altogether.

In the 1990s, my family moved to rural South Dakota, and I started writing. I wrote for a page in the Rapid City Journal that was produced by high-school students in the region.

Later, I met an editor at Indianapolis’ evening paper, the News, who became a mentor. I worked on the editorial page off and on between 1994 and 1997, learning the ropes of proofreading, editorial writing and news writing. Part of my job was to interact with the union workers who cut and pasted the newspaper each day before the pages were photographed and etched into the plates that went on the rollers of the newsprint presses each day. I had the life of a cub reporter, riding my bike to work in Indianapolis with a camera and lunch strapped in a pack on my back.

I remember when a guy in our office became interested in the Internet, and we added a sole Macintosh computer with an America Online account. Only in the late ’90s, when I was a student at the University of South Dakota, did I start to realize how advertising was moving from printed newspapers to online news sources. Many of us in the journalism world brushed it off as a temporary phenomenon – similar to the arrival of radio and TV – and one that wouldn’t knock print journalism from its pedestal of intellectual prestige.
Every year during college, I interned at a different news organization – The Emporia Gazette in Kansas, Gannett News Service in Washington and The Prague Tribune in the Czech Republic. During my senior year in 2001, as I was editor of my college newspaper, I landed internships at The Indianapolis Star and the San Francisco bureau of The Wall Street Journal.

The dot-com boom had gone bust in the Bay Area. Most taxi drivers in San Francisco shuttling me to interviews and meetings were laid-off dot-com workers. Newspapers and other traditional media thought they had a fighting chance, and realized that they needed to evolve and build Web businesses. The Journal and a few other publications wisely began charging for access to, as well as selling advertising on, their websites. Many other newspapers, by contrast, posted their stories for free, reaping surges in page views and some online advertising but at much lower revenue rates.

After stints at The Washington Post and The Associated Press, I joined the Journal in 2002, full time. I moved from writing about health and science to penning a weekly travel-industry column, from covering the metals and mining industry for nearly four years to writing about large conglomerates such as General Electric Co., Siemens and Philips during the financial crisis.

Stories took me all over the world, from Korea and Argentina to India, Paris and Trinidad. I toured coal mines, steel mills, aircraft engine facilities and universities. I reported on trends in waterslide parks, snowboarding high schools and the lone bagpipes major in America.

At times, while writing about young people and education, I would watch how they used technology. I was astonished at how they didn’t read traditional newspapers, but rather aggregated their own content online – the same way they consumed music. I realized that the future of newspapers would be bleak if the industry did not innovate.

The Shrinking Newsroom. The circulations of U.S. daily newspapers continue to struggle. Dozens have gone out of business. Those still standing are largely seeing revenue, advertising and subscribers declining. As a result, they are often printing fewer pages and cutting costs by laying off staff – reporters, editors, receptionists. For example, in May, the 175-year-old New Orleans Times-Picayune laid off 200 employees, including nearly half of its 173-member newsroom. Its parent company, Advance Publications, said the paper would only publish three days a week and shift more focus to online news. The website NewspaperLayoffs.com has counted roughly 41,000 layoffs and buyouts at newspapers nationwide since 2007.

The loss of newspapers and declining revenues means fewer reporters digging into city budgets, attending city meetings and sports events, reporting news for and about the community. Fewer journalists are employed to do the kind of reporting that exposes problems in society with cops, crime and city budgets. Fewer journalists are out there keeping city officials – or other power brokers – honest.

Hyperlocal blogs have sprung up, but are usually operated by untrained journalists who don’t have the time to really report on important local topics such as crime and government. They often end up being local boosters and cheerleaders, promoting new restaurants and businesses that have opened in a city. A few startups with financial backing – such as The Huffington Post, Slate and Drudge Report – have created new models by aggregating news and publishing Web-only journalism.

At the national level, the decline of newspapers means fewer people from various states working as Washington correspondents, reporting on members of Congress, the White House and the federal judiciary. Between 2006 and 2009, U.S. newspapers eliminated more than 40 Washington-regional reporter jobs by layoffs, buyouts or attrition.

Sure, some new startups, such as POLITICO, sprouted to report on government and political news. Bloomberg News and The Atlantic Group are hiring reporters for their publications. But those publications tend to be online rather than printed. And they aren’t likely to cover the Iowa delegation in Washington for readers in Dubuque.

U.S. newspapers such as the Post and The Boston Globe are closing foreign bureaus and shrinking their reporting presence abroad. According to American Journalism Review, 18 newspapers and two entire chains have closed all their foreign bureaus in the past dozen years. War correspondents such as Ernie Pyle and Anthony Shadid, who died in February at just 43 while covering the conflict in Syria, are rare commodities as fewer news organizations can afford to sponsor them.

Thousands of journalists are out of work as newspapers have cut staffing levels, often targeting older, experienced reporters and editors who make higher salaries. They are often replaced by younger reporters who are supposed to blog, tweet, report, shoot and edit videos, and speak on TV about stories they have little time to report. The stories themselves are shorter and often with less depth, geared to a Web audience and readers with shorter attention spans.

Many former journalists now work as corporate storytellers and marketing writers. Some work for nonprofit journalism organizations – ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and California Watch – that are funded by donors rather than subscribers.

The industry is sorting itself out.

Newspapers are investing in technology – new computers, smartphones, cameras, video equipment. Long gone are the union workers cutting and pasting pages. They have been replaced by a few designers laying out the paper to go straight to the printing plant. Even designers are being consolidated; it is common for a design hub to lay out the print pages for a newspaper hundreds of miles away. But U.S. newspapers still need reporters and editors making phone calls, visiting crime scenes, interviewing politicians and sports stars – ferreting out information that is important to a community.

Newspapers face the schizophrenic proposition of both maintaining older readers and trying to pick up younger readers with these new-media methods. Meanwhile, new startups are cropping up, carving out particular niches where they can sell ads and produce journalistic content. POLITICO, for example, was started by two political reporters who left The Washington Post (after trying to launch a similar publication inside the Post). The publication is now a must-read on Capitol Hill, almost more so than the Post.
In 2011, I left The Wall Street Journal to take a fellowship in Germany and to launch my own website: WiredAcademic.com, which follows education innovation and e-learning trends. Starting a digital medium in 2012 is more thrilling to me than working at a top-drawer publication that was a dream job in 2002. The site focuses on how technology is changing schools and universities around the country. More students are taking online classes each year, and the classroom is being upended. Similarly, there will continue to be fewer ink-stained fingers and fewer piles of newsprint.

While newspapers represent a tangible good in the same way that high school gymnasiums and college campuses feel special, these objects will become anachronistic, fading relics of the past. In 2009, however, the West Coast literary journal McSweeney’s published a 320-page newspaper called the San Francisco Panorama, selling it for $5 on the street and $16 in bookstores. Star writers such as Stephen King, Michael Chabon and others contributed. The entire print run sold out in 90 minutes.

A Prediction. What do the ghosts of tomorrow have to say? Taking a close look at the habits of today’s readers and the changes by newspaper companies gives some indications. By 2020, most newspapers will be published only on weekends, preferring to deliver news, features and commentary to subscribers during the week by electronic devices – tablets, smartphones and other electronic gizmos. That’s clearly starting to happen in some markets, such as New Orleans and Detroit.

During the next eight years, we will see the ongoing, painful transition as printed products become pricey, boutique items. Meanwhile, readers will grow more accustomed to paying subscription fees for the online news content they value. The New York Times and the nation’s largest newspaper chain, Gannett, have joined The Wall Street Journal in introducing graduated pay walls.

Then, one day, newspapers will cease to exist. They will become a misnomer, an entry in the history books. Instead of “newspapers,” the Times and The Elkhart Truth will be called “news publishers,” “news producers” or “news organizations.” More and more, we’ll read news on digital devices alongside our coffee, oatmeal and toast.

Until then, the Luddites out there can roll down the lonely railroad tracks, enjoying their newspapers in a stylistic fashion proposed by the humorist Garrison Keillor: “A man at a laptop is a man at a desk, a still, a drone. Where is the nobility here? He hunches forward, his eyes glaze, and heads of saliva glitter in the corners of his mouth and make their way down his chin as he becomes engrossed in the video of the fisherman falling out of the boat. A newspaper reader, by comparison, is a swordsman, a wrangler, a private eye. Holding a newspaper frees you to express yourself, sort of like holding a sax did for Coltrane.” 

Paul Glader is the CEO and managing editor at WiredAcademic.com. He spent nearly 20 years writing for daily newspapers, including The Indianapolis Star, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, and continues to do so on occasion.

 

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