[Media]Are Newspapers Doomed? [I posted this on Blue Oregon this morning. For non-Oregonians, there's a number of references to local media, but I think the main points will be clear.]
In the 21st
Century, if you want to receive news, you have a seemingly endless number of sources: radio, television, internet, your cell phone, podcasts. Or, you can go the 18th Century route and have a kid bring you day-old news printed on the pulped skins of dead trees. Of all these modes, guess which one is in serious trouble?
This weekend, The Oregonian debuts its newest attempt to halt the march of obsolescence. The following day, the New York Times tries a different strategy. Yet with newspaper circulations down 13% in the last 20 years, the rise of a raft of new satellite media nipping at their heels, and a whole generation who have abandoned daily subscriptions, are they just delaying the inevitable?
Newspapers survived the radio and television eras relatively unharmed. Why, then, has the internet been so devastating? Historically, local newspapers have performed several functions, and only one of these is news delivery. They also create a touchstone between advertisers and consumers, provide information about local events and happenings, and serve as a marketplace. Radio and television have never been able to provide these other functions, but with online auctions, email listservs, and e-tailing, the internet can. In particular, classified sales, long a major breadwinner for newspapers, are slumping rapidly in the face of Craigslist, Monster, and eBay.
Nationalization of News
A second phenomenon afflicting local papers is the trend toward nationalization. Fifty years ago, the amount of national news came in at a dribble through radio, the nightly news, and the few stories newspapers could fit into section A. Now we get torrents of information from around the globe. Entertainment, sports, business, and news are all readily available at any moment. Our physical orientation has grown, and we now relate to the country, and even world, as an extended community. It's difficult for dailies to make the small happenings in a hometown as exciting as the big events on offer from across the country. As a result, more and more news coverage becomes nationalized, and worse, sensationalized, in an effort to attract eyeballs. The biggest story in a city may be the sale of a local utility, but if Michael Jackson is being tried for child molestation, he's going to get more coverage.
Loss of Community
Because they performed the multiple functions of delivering local news, serving as a marketplace for commerce and a bulletin board for upcoming events, newspapers helped define the local community. That's why, when USA Today was launched in 1982, the concept of a "national" paper seemed so bizarre--it defied our concept of what a newspaper was. As fewer and fewer people read the newspaper, that community begins to fragment. Now we get news via the internet, we learn about upcoming events through emails, and we shop online, in our jammies. An inadvertent effect of newspapers was that we all had a single touchstone, like a community center we came to each day. Now we liberals listen to NPR and KPOJ while conservatives tune in Lars and Limbaugh. I get updates from the Northwest Film Center and the Bus Project, while other citizens receive emails from Michael Medved and pastors.com (or whatever--you get the point). We have far less in common to talk about because we don't get the same news.
The Future of Newspapers
Newspapers are in real trouble. For the first time in 350 years, newspapers don't have a unique function. In the past month, The Oregonian has changed up its Metro page, and now the paper is trying to lure Sunday readers back with shorter news and a new features section (which sounds sort of bloggy to me). We've watched as the Portland Tribune has tried to stave off a slow death with various changes in content, personnel, and focus. Nationally, the New York Times hopes it can get people to pony up $50 to read Paul Krugman, which will please advertisers who want a more highly selective demographic to target. Yet it's not clear that content changes are an adequate solution--after all, content is the one thing consumers have in spades.
I hope they're able to figure it out. Without local papers, we'll be subject to even more sensationalism, even less texture and local color. Papers like the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal will survive, but they won't be covering Portland, Oregon. It's likely that free weeklies like Willamette Week, with smaller overhead, will also survive. But no matter how good a weekly is, it will never adequately cover all local news. We'll feel further erosion in the local community, and we will know less about what our local leaders are up to. Or each other. Readers may not be clamoring for the content local newspapers provide, but to a city, it's critically important. That's the intractable problem confronting papers as they study the media landscape in the new millennium.
I wish them luck.