Ever since the internet began exploding in popularity in the mid-1990s, pundits have predicted that it would eventually present serious challenges to daily newspapers. We're in the midst of seeing those challenges reach a crisis point.
Along with a sinking economy, the internet is reducing daily newspaper profits and causing layoffs, and in some cases, it's leading to the demise of print publications. Newspapers are facing the double whammy of shrinking ad revenue and shrinking readership.
The news has been grim:
- The New York Times' earnings for 3Q 2008 were less than half of what they were for the same period in 2007, and the paper is burdened with a huge debt, according to the company's latest 10-Q report. Silicon Alley Insider (www.alleyinsider.com) says The Times is "running on fumes."
- The Los Angeles Times, in its latest round of newsroom cuts, laid off another 75 staffers in October after laying off 150 newsroom workers over the summer.
- In October, The Christian Science Monitor announced it will be transforming itself from a daily newspaper to a weekly one by next April while focusing more of its efforts on its website. According to a story in BusinessWeek (www.businessweek.com), the paper is losing nearly $20 million a year and has seen its circulation shrink to 56,000 from a high of 223,000 in 1970.
- Every major newspaper in the country is losing circulation, according to the latest figures of the Audit Bureau of Circulations (www.accessabc.com), except USA TODAY and The Wall Street Journal, whose circulations are both flat. For the 507 newspapers as a whole that reported, daily circulation is down 4.6% from the same period a year ago. Of the 20 biggest papers, the biggest losers of subscribers were the Houston Chronicle, down 11.7%, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, down 11.1%.
- Newspaper circulation in the country as a whole is down more than 14% since 1970, despite the population increasing by 50% since this period, according to BuzzMachine (www.buzzmachine.com). Newspaper penetration is about half what it was then: 17% instead of 30%.
Things could get much worse, opines Tim Oren at his Due Diligence blog (www.due-diligence.typepad.com). He's calling what may happen the "Newspaper Crash of 2009."
For newspaper readers, the most pronounced consequences of the newspaper malaise are fewer articles available to read with their morning coffee, more news and feature stories by writers from the national news services instead of local reporters, and the loss of favorite columnists.
The flip side is the availability of more sources of news and opinion online, one reason for newspapers' problems. Newspapers' own websites are among those sites that are benefiting. These websites attracted a record number of visitors in 3Q 2008, a 15.8% increase over the same period a year ago, according to a recent Nielsen Online report (www.nielsen-online.com).
The most popular news sites, though, are not associated with newspapers. The top four sites in terms of the number of visitors, according to Nielsen's latest figures, are MSNBC (www.msnbc.msn.com), Yahoo! News (http://news.yahoo.com), CNN (www.cnn.com), and AOL News (http://news.aol.com). The New York Times' website (www.nytimes.com) is fifth.
Unlike printed daily newspapers, most news sites are free, a major attraction, though some news sites follow the increasingly standardized web model of offering additional services for a fee.
Reading news online versus reading the print version of the news, as anyone who has compared the two knows, has advantages as well as disadvantages. One feature that is seen as both positive and negative is personalization.
With the internet, you can not only personalize how you want the news delivered to you (i.e., to your web browser's homepage or to your web-enabled cell phone), you can also personalize what news you see.
This convenience lets you eliminate what you consider irrelevant to your needs. But it also has the potential of diminishing society's core of shared information. Critics contend that with less connecting us to one another, intolerance and xenophobia may increase.
Internet news has modest entry barriers; anyone is able put up a news-flavored site or to distribute an email-based newsletter. This democratization of news (a good thing) can compromise professionalism and credibility (a bad thing).
Despite the criticism journalism often receives, some of it deserved, professional efforts are worth patronizing. Journalists are trained to distinguish news from rumor and self-promotion, to recognize when a story that hasn't been told needs to be, to dig out relevant information, to make the complex clear, and to check their facts.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated
columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About
the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at