April 28, 2009
Newspapers in crisis
As someone who grew up in Sri Lanka, a country that has a strong newspaper-reading ethos, I feel a sense of regret at what seems to be an irreversible decline in the fortunes of daily newspapers. Growing up, my family subscribed to two morning newspapers and two evening newspapers each weekday, and three papers on Sundays, if you can imagine that. Wherever I have lived I have had a daily subscription to the local paper.
For almost all my life, I used to have a rigid routine in the mornings. I would start the day by getting a cup of coffer and reading the newspaper for national and world news. If for some reason the paper was not delivered, I felt disoriented without my fix of news the first thing in the morning.
But with the arrival of the internet it is usually the case that I already know what national and international news the paper is likely to contain. So lately my habits have shifted to reading the paper in the evening, more as a form of relaxation, and to get mostly local news and the comics. There is no urgency anymore to read the paper as soon as it comes. My attitude to it is more like towards a magazine. In fact, I could probably do quite well without the paper, and I continue to subscribe more out of habit and a vague sense of loyalty to preserve what I used to consider a valuable institution.
The next generation clearly does not have the same habits as I have, for the same reasons that caused me to change my own habit. Neither of my daughters subscribes to their local newspapers although they both live in cities (San Francisco and Philadelphia) that have large metropolitan dailies. They, like their peers, are getting their news from the internet and do not have the sense that if they do not read the daily paper that they are missing important information. Because they are so networked with others, their attitude seems to be that if the news is important enough, it will find them without them having to seek it out. This attitude is a nightmare for newspaper publishers. Editor & Publisher published data yesterday that average daily circulation had dropped severely in the last six months for the top 25 newspapers, except for the Wall Street Journal, which was flat.
This is largely the reason that newspapers are in trouble. Hardly a day passes without a story about some newspaper somewhere in the nation going into bankruptcy or making cutbacks in reporting staff or reducing the number of pages or the number of days they publish. It seems fairly clear that newspapers are finding it difficult to survive, though in some cases this is due not so much to decline in readership as to bad financial decisions or bad management or just the unrealistic profit expectations of their stockholders.
While I used to think that continuing to subscribe to the daily paper was a worthy attempt on my part to preserve an important institution, I became aware of the generational shift in attitudes when my daughter came home for a few days and she noticed me reading the paper. She said, "So, you still support the killing of trees, I see." I had not thought of it like that, but she had a point. In many ways, publishing a newspaper, with its vast daily consumption of paper and ink and gas for transportation, to produce something that is then immediately thrown away, is a huge waste in resources, something that the next generation is more keenly conscious of.
Going completely online would be the environmentally friendly thing to do. On the surface, it might seem that simply putting the paper on the web and charging a subscription might work. But the revenue models are not there yet to support such change. Only part of a newspapers' revenue comes from subscriptions. Newspapers depend heavily on advertising and a big problem for the newspaper is the decline in classified advertising due to people shifting to free outlets on the internet like Craigslist for that purpose. The internet is the perfect vehicle for classified advertising because it strength lies in its ability to link people up with like minded people, buyers with sellers, employers with employees. Newspapers will never regain classified advertising.
Furthermore, people are used to getting information free on the web and are unlikely to pay much for web subscriptions to newspapers. I pay $250 for daily delivery of my paper and definitely would not pay that for online access to the same material. But that does not mean people are not willing to pay for content. For example, I am willing to donate money to websites like Antiwar.com and to my local NPR stations because they provide good quality information. I am also willing to pay subscriptions to get online newsletters. But in each case, it is because these sources provide information that I cannot easily get elsewhere and would be sorry to see disappear. I do not feel that same strong sense of affiliation with my local newspaper. If it went completely online but otherwise remained unchanged, I would likely stop reading it and probably would not subscribe.
Those newspapers that have experimented with charging for online content (like the New York Times putting its columnists behind a pay wall called Times Select) found their readership declining and gave up the practice. I could have predicted that. As I have said before, the old-style columnists are mostly useless and the only reason people read them is because they come bundled up with the rest of the paper. Did the publishers think that many people would actually pay to read the fatuous musings of Thomas Friedman and Maureen Dowd?
Next: Possible models for newspapers
POST SCRIPT: Comics on the plight of newspapers