Newspapers are dying
Newspaper are dying. Not just a few newspapers: the whole industry.
As a former newspaper editor, I take no pleasure from making this announcement. But it's true. The news business has changed enormously in the past few decades, and newspapers haven't been able to adapt. I don't think they can. The healthier newspapers may survive for years, thanks to the ingrained habits of loyal readers. But in the long run they are doomed. The handwriting is on the wall-- or rather, I should say, on the computer screen.
Fifty years ago, the morning newspaper was your best source of information on a wide variety of subjects. A good newspaper would give you adequate coverage of local, national, and international developments; it would offer some political opinion and analysis; it would provide you with the weather report, the calendar of local events, the stock-market report, the television listings, and the scores of the last night's ballgames.
If you wanted in-depth information on any one of those subjects, the newspaper probably couldn't satisfy your needs. The newspaper was a supermarket of information, not a specialty shop. But for a quick summary of the news, it couldn't be beat.
Television began to change that, with the evening newscasts. The major networks, with their huge budgets, could send out correspondents to bring back video footage from all over the world. But for all their slickness, those programs did not provide nearly as much information as an average daily newspaper. Nor could the nationwide programs follow the local stories. Newspapers were still a necessity for the well-informed citizen.
With the advent of the internet, however, the competition became ferocious. Through the wonders of the web, you now have immediate access to thousands of different "specialty shops," each one offering all of the information you might want on a particular subject. With a few clicks-- easier than turning the page of an unwieldy broadsheet-- you can switch from a recap of the ballgame to an analysis of the conflict in Darfur; from a live interview with a political candidate to a detailed forecast of the next storm. You discover your own favorite sources for local news, international news, analysis, opinion, and specialized reports about your own particular interests.
Moreover, the internet brings you all that news now, rather than tomorrow morning. A politician's speech can be delivered, rebutted, defended, and analyzed in depth from a dozen different perspectives, all in a single evening. By the time the daily paper arrives-- carrying only the news that was available when the press run began in the wee hours of the morning-- you already know what it's going to say.
For years I have subscribed to the New York Times-- not because I enjoyed its editorial perspective, but because the Times was clearly the most comprehensive, professional newspaper on the market, with capable correspondents nearly everywhere. The Times did not rely on wire services and independent stringers; the paper had its own reporters, who usually knew their fields quite well (even if they often let their own opinions color their coverage). No other American newspaper could offer nearly the same breadth of coverage.
But that has changed, too. The news section of the Times seems thinner and thinner; the stories are superficial-- especially in comparison with the expert analysis so readily available on the internet. Obviously hunting for new ways to attract readers, the Times is now offering a much heavier mixture of "human interest" stories. During the past week, for example, the Times has offered stories on automobile drivers who send text messages while they commute; banks that charge heavy overdraft fees for debit-card users; the fashion industry; the search for a nautical shortcut through the Arctic; and the contents of a Filet-O-Fish sandwich. All these stories appeared on the front page! When you claim to provide "all the news that's fit to print," a reasonable reader expects the front page to convey something more crucial than the recipe for Filet-O-Fish.
Why do we still subscribe to newspapers? They still have their uses, certainly. Birdcages need to be lined, and I'll need something to start the fires in the woodstove this winter. But seriously, is there anything in today's newspaper that you couldn't find as easily-- or more easily-- on the web?
Why do we still read newspapers? I really can't answer the question. More importantly, I don't think the editors of America's largest newspapers can answer it, either.
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