2008-06-05 / This Week's Attitude

This Week's Attitude

Newspaper Circulation Drop Fueled By Changing Culture
By Neil S.Friedman

"The greatest danger to the future of newspapers is not a hostile administration in Washington, not the acid rain of criticism, not a new technology. It is the loss of faith, a failure of resolve on the art of the people who make newspapers." New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller

Newspaper circulation has been eroding for the last 20 years as younger readers turn to other sources for news. It's an accelerating trend that appears to be non-stop. Furthermore, as circulation for print newspapers declines, Internet news sources continue to gain readers.

In the first three months of 2008, several major newspapers posted decreases in circulation, including the New York Times, the New York Post, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe. In the same period, circulation declined almost two percent at over 800 daily newspapers nationwide, according to the Newspaper Association of America. More than half of the cities that once had at least two newspapers are down to a single daily print edition. Nonetheless, industry analysts maintain that although print newspapers continue to lose circulation, their value as an advertising tool remains strong.

It's not that those seeking the latest news can't find it; they just have an assortment of alternatives from which to choose, especially a myriad of Web sites and blogs that have spawned in the last few years on the Internet, which is, categorically, the fastest growing medium in history. One study concluded that under-30 newspaper readership declined by eight percent since 1996.

While some young people appear to have the attention span of a housefly, unless they're spellbound by some hand-held electronic device, it's getting more difficult for traditional newspapers - dailies and weeklies - to appeal to new readers.

News, nevertheless, is bigger than ever, as evidenced by thriving 24-hour news channels, but journalism seems to have become less important. Reporters and editors with integrity at some newspapers tend to be overshadowed when business and corporate interests find it necessary to fulfill profit margins for stockholders and meet circulation re-quirements for advertisers. Some younger - and older - readers seem to prefer gossipy, trashy, trivial tabloid stories as opposed to more consequential national and world news that doesn't directly affect them.

An example of what even the most respected newspapers will do to draw readers was when the New York Times recently broke the news about former Gov. Eliot Spitzer's alleged ties to a prostitution ring. The story deserved front page coverage, but when the august broad-sheet also splashed revealing photos of the woman with whom Spitzer allegedly had encounters in its pages and on its Web site, it temporarily took on the aura usually associated with tabloids like the New York Post, which relentlessly displayed additional pictures of the young woman in its print and electronic versions for several days.

Some consultants have advised the beleaguered newspaper industry to seek fresh approaches to disseminating the news - on and off line - to effectively attract new readers and maintain loyal ones. Most print newspaper Web sites also offer video images of breaking stories, to compete with the major 24-hour news channels - CNN, Fox and MSNBC - but often hours before they are broadcast on network evening news programs.

In cost-cutting efforts, as the price of newsprint steadily increases and advertising revenues slump in a weak economy, two local newspapers - the Times and the Post - reduced their sizes. The Times shrunk its width by one-and-a-half inches last year and the Post is now noticeably two inches smaller than traditional tabloids, like the Daily News, and looks kind of skimpy.

In contrast to the struggles of daily newspapers, some community weeklies have recorded advertising and circulation upswings in recent years, mostly due to mergers or partnerships with larger newspapers, which appeals to businesses trying to reach a wider audience.

As newspaper ownership consolidates, the executives who run the publicly held corporations that own them might be more concerned with immediate bottom-line profits and bonuses than the long-term survival of the industry they continue to manage in its decline. The Newspaper Association of America reported that two-thirds of independent daily newspapers have folded in the last 30 years.

It's obvious that print newspapers are losing their appeal as new readers continue to turn to electronic conduits, although print editions are still by far the most popular way by which people read newspapers, according to a study that predicted that in two years less than 10 percent of those between 20-29 will regularly read a daily newspaper.

At one time it was generally accepted that people were prone to read newspapers as they grew older. But, that study found, newspaper-reading habits developed by individuals in the 20s, stick with them as they age.

Naturally, the decline in newspaper readership is disheartening to me as a working journalist and one who has loved reading a daily paper(s) since child-hood when the comics and the sports pages were my primary concern.

As I matured and my interests expanded, I gravitated towards the news and editorial pages, which remain foremost in my daily reading. When I seek current events or updates during the course of a day, I inevitably go on the Internet. However, I still read a daily newspaper when it arrives on my door-step the following morning.

A few analysts forecast the death knell for print newspapers increases with succeeding generations. In 25-30 years, some predict newspaper Web sites and hand-held electronic devices will serve as the primary source for current events, with 24-hour news channels supplementing information for news junkies.

As long as there's news that's fit to print, I will be among the dwindling number of readers who long for the daily newspaper.

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