I frequently find myself in discussions about the death of newspapers. And I always offer the same response: Newspapers won’t disappear. The national dailies and large metros will suffer but most will survive. The small dailies and weeklies will do fine. The days of 40-percent profit margins have yielded to a 10-percent return for a good year. The content will change — breaking news and aggressive depth coverage will move to the Web. Page counts will drop and delivery days will lessen. I expect some “pay” papers to move to “free” distribution.
The tarnish on the “Golden Age of Newspapers” just gets thicker. But for America and its way of life and government, what does all this really mean?
Paul Starr offered his view in The New Republic back in March when he wrote “Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption): Why American politics and society are about to be changed for the worse.” He said: “We take newspapers for granted. They have been so integral a part of daily life in America, so central to politics and culture and business, and so powerful and profitable in their own right, that it is easy to forget what a remarkable historical invention they are.”
Starr makes these key points about the value newspapers provide:
- The latest data available, 2006, shows that metros run some 70 stories a day in just the national, local, and business sections. A 30-minute TV newscast runs 10-12.
- Local TV focuses on crime, fires and traffic tie-ups; newspapers provide most of the original coverage of public affairs.
- Online media outlets that do not represent traditional media “mirror sites” offer a lot of opinion, but not much reporting. “No online enterprise has yet generated a stream of revenue to support original reporting for the general public comparable to the revenue stream that newspapers have generated in print,” he wrote.
This points to a significant reduction in the watchdog role newspapers play and less chance for the public to use newspapers as a way to become civically active. “Our new technologies do not retire our old responsibilities,” Starr wrote about the news media.
Others say the demise of newspapers portends no change and that the Web, just as newspapers did, can carry the watchdog responsibility papers traditionally bore. Anyone with a camera phone and a computer can become a “citizen journalist,” and contribute to the coverage, they believe.
Meanwhile, Karen Dunlap, at the media think-tank Poynter Institute said during a DePauw University panel on the future of newspapers: “There is a difference between someone taking a picture with a camera phone and a journalist.”
What do you think about the role of newspapers, past, present and future?