Is ‘death of American newspapers’ from self-inflicted wound?

Title shot from the 1959 Jack Webb film about newspapers “-30-” (Screen capture, YouTube)

In its Wednesday edition, the Washington Examiner offers an interesting perspective on “the death of the American newspaper,” and like all good obituaries, this one tries to explain the cause of death.

To paraphrase Sam Clemens, aka Mark Twain, reports of the newspaper’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Still, newspapers are in trouble and the Examiner story has some interesting observations about why the “mainstream press” may have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.

“The reason for the industry’s decline is obvious: the Internet. But near all are missing what the Internet has actually done. As a result of that, they’re also missing what’s going to happen — essentially, that the U.S. press is going to become much more political, in both party and sociopolitical terms.”—Washington Examiner

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If one were to listen to people who have already cancelled their subscriptions, the politicization has already happened, and it is getting worse. In the process, newspapers – and broadcast journalism to some extent – have alienated a considerable portion of their audience. And no greater example of this can be found than in the debate over the Second Amendment, which comes right after the First in that pesky old Bill of Rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the one that protects freedom of speech and the press.

In the firearms community, the prevailing wisdom is that newspapers – and particularly the editorial boards – are using the First Amendment to bludgeon the Second. Gun owners and hunting families have dropped newspaper subscriptions like stinky dirty diapers.

After all, who is going to pay month after month to read editorials that relentlessly attack one’s rights and beliefs? Who is going to financially support an institution whose editorial aim is to trample on the liberty of its readers while asserting it’s in their best interests? Who is going to spend money to not read news that isn’t there?

Some newspapers that once had interesting and healthy outdoors sections no longer carry such news beyond an obligatory fishing report. Other newspapers no longer regularly cover hunting in their sports pages, and “Outdoors” columns have either disappeared or have become devoted to other pursuits, such as hiking, cross country skiing, climbing, camping and bicycling. Yet hunters continue to spend tens of millions of dollars annually in their pursuit, and they just might like to read about that in a local newspaper, which could bring back advertising revenue from gun shops and sporting goods stores. Maybe, as this Forbes article noted, nobody in the newsroom hunts or owns guns, so there is no institutional knowledge because there is no interest.

When a newspaper loses credibility with its readers, and readers lose faith in their newspaper to deliver honest, balanced and accurate reporting, it is “game over.”

Back in 1959, Jack Webb did a film titled “-30-” which in old newspaper parlance meant the end of the story. It was a corny film in many ways, with typical Webb dialogue of preachy speeches, and in one scene that survived today thanks to the miracle of YouTube, a grumpy newsroom veteran played by William Conrad delivered an analysis of a newspaper that at one time might have served the real-world press well to put on the newsroom wall:

The Los Angeles Times has reportedly sold to a local billionaire. The same deal includes the sale of the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Times reported.

The New York Times last October observed, “Across the country, those working in the newspaper industry are fretting as the end of the year approaches. Driving much of the anxiety is a steep drop in print ad revenue, once the lifeblood for newspapers. Spending on newspaper advertising in the United States is projected to fall 11 percent this year, to about $12.5 billion, according to the Interpublic Group’s Magna.”

Advertising revenue declines because readership has declined, and that happened because the reading audience has found other sources of information. The Internet is largely responsible because it took away the monopoly on news that had been enjoyed by major newspapers and the Big Three networks for generations.

Cable news came along, and some reporters have been embarrassingly caught in their own biases.

But print newspapers are victims of technology. When one can read the news on their smart phone or laptop, the smelly old newspaper seems like a drag.

Still, if newspapers are dying, it may not be from “natural causes” brought on by advances in technology and changes in lifestyle. There just might be a hint of suicide on the death certificate.

 

 

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