Past Event

The incredible shrinking newspaper business

In the last few months, every day brings news of another newspaper’s demise or the announcement of drastic cost-cutting measures. Some of the latest:

  • The Chicago Tribune and the Los Angles Times announced last week they are consolidating and reducing their foreign coverage.
  • The Houston Chronicle will soon lay off 12 percent of its staff.
  • The Ann Arbor News will end daily operations in July.
  • Denver’s Rocky Mountain News published its final edition February 27.
  • In April, The Christian Science Monitor will shift from a daily print format to an online publication.
  • Gannett employees making more than $90,000 will forgo two weeks pay to help the company, which owns USA Today and more than 80 other daily newspapers, avoid more layoffs after eliminating 4,000 jobs last year.

These closings and cutbacks are only a fraction of the unprecedented upheavals roiling an industry that has played a central role in American democracy from the beginning. Newspapers in North America date to the 17th century, when Benjamin Harris published Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, considered the first newspaper in the American colonies. The earliest newspapers started as newsletters and news books, "sometimes printed, sometimes copied by hand, and sent from one place to another, carrying work of trade and politics," Jill Lepore recently wrote in The New Yorker.

Because technology has changed the way news gets delivered, millions now go online to read-without paying for it-the same content available in printed publications. And while not charging for their online content, newspapers are seeing their primary source of revenue-advertising-rapidly decline. With access to the same technology as publishers, advertisers no longer have to depend on newspapers to reach customers. Instead of paying for a newspaper ad, they have their own websites on which to promote their products and services.

"The easy Internet ad dollars of the late 1990s enticed newspapers and magazines to put all of their content, plus a whole lot of blogs and whistles, onto their websites for free," Walter Isaacson wrote in Time magazine. "But the bulk of the ad dollars has ended up flowing to groups that did not actually create much content but instead piggybacked on it: search engines, portals, and some aggregators."

Caught between a faltering business model and a shift in reader habits, many predict that newspapers could all but disappear. The potential consequences of that are serious "for U.S. society," says Mark Fitzgerald of Editor and Publisher. "In every community in the U.S., the newspaper is the largest newsgathering organization. Newspapers are the watchdogs of corruption and crime. Society and U.S. democracy will be poorer if newspapers cannot find a way out of this mess."

Is the Internet to blame for the problems facing newspapers? How would not having a printed newspaper in your city or town affect you? Should newspapers charge for their online content? Do you see online content as free? How much is the news worth to you? How much of your news do you get online? Should newspaper executives just accept their industry’s fate and go completely online? Why is a local newspaper still vital to a community? Is the newspaper industry out of touch with what people want?

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