Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Future of Newspapers

[posted by Callimachus]

Short version: It ain't pretty.

Longer version:

Nineteen-fifty marks the high point of newspaper penetration in America: 100 percent of American homes took one or more daily papers. Fifty-six years later fewer than half of American homes get one. At the current rate of decline, no homes will get any newspapers in the not-too-distant future. Morning news, once the monopoly province of newspapers (virtually all evening papers, facing competition from network news, folded in the 60s and 70s), is now overwhelmingly the province of the networks, cable, radio, and the Web. Newspaper readers (as well as broadcast-news audiences) are old and growing ever older (on an actuarial table, you can plot the newspaper's last day). There are, effectively, no new newspaper readers. Newspapers have worked best as a direct-marketing medium—introducing seller to buyer—but the Web is better and cheaper. The mainstay of newspaper profits—real-estate, auto, recruitment advertising—accounting for as much as 30 percent of them, is migrating almost entirely online. Shopping itself, that other elemental commerce connection of a newspaper ("The principle of free speech owes at least as much to department stores as to the First Amendment," notes Ken Doctor in passing), is ever more an online activity. While circulation steadily drops, and as online price competition becomes fiercer, newspapers have, nevertheless, continued to charge more for ads—a kind of pyramid scheme, which, sooner rather than later, falls in on itself.

What will the death throes look like? Michael Wolff paints an ugly picture of billionaires buying them for the sheer -- well, vanity of being a big media mogul in the old style.

Newspapers—in rather direct contradiction to the theoretical values of the journalists who worked for them—have classically been about power and influence and settling scores (in the ideal formulation, the proprietor gets the editorial page to exercise his primal needs, while the news pages remain more pure) and, not least of all, gaining advantages in real-estate deals. Newspapers often bullied their way to centrality in a community. They were a kind of Mafia, a kind of protection racket—you don't play nice with me, you don't advertise with me, I mess with you.

Except back then they had genuine commercial heft and might accidentally do good once in a while. Wolff tries to be hopeful, but can't quite manage it. My only hope is that this dying business lives one day longer than it takes for my pension to kick in.

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