September 21, 2005
Fewer readers, lower circulation
The Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, the dominant daily newspapers in this metropolitan area of five million people, will slash 16 percent of their newsroom staffs through buyouts or layoffs this year, their publisher said yesterday.While I often disagree with its editorial views, I'm sorry to see the Inquirer falling on hard times. I can't speak for "the Internet," but I have been a much more avid reader of the Inquirer since I took up blogging, and I couldn't estimate the number of times I've linked to their stories. It's provided regular fuel for this blog. Much to the Inquirer's credit, it has been a very blog-friendly newspaper. Not only does it run a regular column about blogs called "Blog Cabin" but the Inquirer has its own blog called Blinq. (I've been linked by both, and that's despite the fact that my political philosophy is poles apart from the editorial staff.)
While I'm not sure about the New York Times, in the case of the Inquirer I don't think their problems have much to do with parasitic bloggers (like me, I guess) nit-picking stories to death. If anything, blogger attention would be good for business. Not that anything I'd write would cause many people to run right out and buy a copy the Inquirer, but it wouldn't cause them to cancel their subscriptions, either. Reading and linking to a daily newspaper is a good way to keep informed, and I'd like to think that the more blogs talk about a paper, the more attention is paid to it, and the more sales would improve. (Obviously, the bigger the blog, the more attention the paper gets.) Furthermore, there are now at least as many bloggers who'd agree with the Inquirer's editorial philosophy as who'd oppose it, and thus blog discussions would drive sales from "friendly" readers as well as readers best categorized as "critical."
Bottom line: even if the blogosphere consisted entirely of raving right wing news parasites, it is not in the interest of any parasite to have its host die.
So I don't think the blogosphere -- even the outspokenly angry portion of it -- is responsible for the decline in sales. I note that in the graph supplied in today's hard copy (not visible on the Internet), circulation has been slumping since 1990, and only a small percentage of the slump has occurred since 2002, when the blogosphere really began to take off.
What would account for this I am not sure. Certainly, the 1990s was the decade of the Internet. But for most of that decade, there was talk of a "digital divide" between the people with high tech knowledge, and the "know nots." If we assume a general loss of digitally-knowledgeable people in the 1990s, then why would circulation at the Philadelphia Daily News plummet so much more sharply than that of the Inquirer?
Even in the past year, Daily News circulation declined at twice the rate of the Inquirer:
Average circulation at The Inquirer is down about 3 percent from the same period a year ago, to about 744,000 on Sundays and 365,000 daily, Natoli said. Daily News circulation is down 8 percent, to 129,000.Looking at the entire 1990-2005 period in today's graph, the Sunday and Daily Inquirer were down 25% and 19% respectively, while the Daily News was down a whopping 45%.
The problem I have with the "Internet" theory of declining circulation is that the Daily News is Philadelphia's equivalent of a tabloid. It often features a huge front page photo of local crime or sports gossip, and cultivates the working class, man-in-the-street ethos. I don't mean to generalize or put down the Daily News, but I'd think that (especially in the 90s, when such knowledge was more elite than it is now) Philadelphia's digitally savvy crowd would have been more likely readers of the Inquirer than the Daily News, which would tend to cause more of a concomitant circulation hemorrhage in the former than in the latter.
For many years when I was growing up, Philadelphia had a second daily called the Evening Bulletin. For many years it was such a tough competitor that it caused circulation at Inquirer to decline, and it was once "the largest-circulation afternoon daily in the U.S." The Bulletin died in 1982. Here's an excerpt from a longer post-mortem story:
changing patterns of newspaper readership and, with it, advertising dollars, eventually lead to its demise, as the Bulletin lost money every year since 1975. Other evening newspapers, like the Washington Star and the Newark News, met similar fates after being attacked by problems on several fronts.Television? Radio? At least the Bulletin's demise couldn't be blamed on the Internet.
If my memory serves me well, it was in the early 1980s that some smartass pundit (I've forgotten who) made the remark that the definition of "intellectual" had been dumbed down to mean "anyone who reads a daily newspaper."
Is it possible that declining literacy is a bigger threat to circulation than television, radio, or even the Internet? Isn't it logical that the fewer people there are capable of reading, the fewer readers there are? The Heartland Institute reprints a 2002 article positing a direct relationship between declining literacy and declining circulation:
U.S. newspapers have a life-or-death interest in schoolchildren being taught how to read and becoming motivated to read regularly.I'd say so. And to the extent that the illiterate are using the Internet, I'd be willing to bet that it isn't to read the news sites.
In the same 2002 article, Arnold Kling predicted death -- for the entire industry -- within twenty years:
Writing for TechCentral Station, an online forum on technology and markets, economist Arnold Kling deemed the numbers so grim he predicted “the newspaper business is going to die within the next 20 years. Newspaper publishing will continue, but only as a philanthropic venture.”This is grim news. And it certainly can't be blamed on bloggers.
As I've said before, I'm somewhat guilty of being a parasite of the newspapers, but I'm still glad they're there. The loss of them would represent a loss -- not a transformation -- of culture. (Dare I speak of "death"?)
This isn't a left wing/right wing issue, nor is it a newspapers-versus-the-blogosphere issue. I think it's a national shame.
I wish there was something I could do to help.
posted by Eric on 09.21.05 at 09:23 AM
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