Fewer readers, lower circulation

At the same time that the New York Times is slashing its staff by 4%, the Philadelphia Inquirer is slashing its staff by 16%:

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.

The announcement by Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., a division of Knight Ridder Inc., came as the New York Times and the Boston Globe also announced job cuts, making it a dismal day of economic news for U.S. newspapers struggling in the Internet age.

"We are facing, I believe, a revolution in our industry. We are going to have to fight our way through the fear and anxiety," The Inquirer's editor, Amanda Bennett, told a solemn staff.

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.

What gives?

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.

Among them was the country's post-World War II embrace of suburbia, which boosted newspaper costs by forcing delivery trucks to increasingly distant locations, trips that the evening newspapers found choked with rush-hour traffic. The solution to this was to print the evening newspapers earlier, but few found value in old news.

Following the people out of the city were businesses and their advertising dollars, including the department stores that once advertised heavily in the Bulletin, such as the former Lit Brothers. Adding to the dilemma of the Bulletin was increased competition from competing newspapers all around, including strong suburban newspapers like the Bucks County Courier Times in Levittown and the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, and, of course, the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Plus, a nationwide shift from a manufacturing to a service-based economy with its later, more 9-5 work schedule meant that more people had time to read a morning newspaper, and that getting the news first thing became more important to the workday ahead.

And all newspapers were facing the problem of competing against the increasing popularity of radio and television news programs, which could provide the most up-to-date information yet.

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.

The trends are not encouraging—for literacy or for newspapers. National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores for fourth-graders have not budged off dreadful over the past decade. Poor and minority children have fallen even further behind, despite a federal expenditure of $125 billion over 25 years that was supposed to narrow the gap.

Perhaps even more chilling was an analysis done by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Among 18 industrialized nations, OECD found, the United States ranked dead last in the literacy of 16- to 25-year-old high school graduates who did not go on to further study. Six in 10 of the high school graduates read below a level considered minimally necessary to cope with “the complex demands of modern life.”

It hasn’t always been that way. An OECD analyst noted that 30 years ago, the United States was the “undisputed leader” in educating its people. Now, it’s the literacy laggard among developed nations.

Recent data on newspaper readership add further cause for concern.

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.”

Kling’s concern was triggered by data from the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), which calculated spending on newspapers by age group. The highest spending relative to the general population came from 65- to 74-year-olds, who spent 136 percent of the national average on newspaper subscriptions or single-copy purchases. The lowest spending on newspapers came from the 18- to 24-year-olds, who spent just 25 percent of the national average.

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










Comments

To carry your analogy a little further, I have to wonder if the problem is not one of a parasite, but of a long-latent disorder of the host.

My biggest gripe with contemporary journalism, and the biggest reason I started blogging, is that much of it is so abysmal in its execution. If journalism is a profession (as many argue that it is), then it is perhaps the only one in this country that has seen a decline in its median skill level. (And I say this as an attorney who has encountered a lot of sub-par attorneys.)

The thing that seems lacking in today's journalism (questions of bias aside), it seems to me, is the thorough understanding required to report a story adequately. The "who, what, when, where, why, and how" might provide the immediate facts, but they almost always prove insufficient to give a story the necessary context crucial to a reader.

Instead, we have "gotcha" journalism and sensationalisation becoming the norm.

We have the dumbing down of journalism itself. As a result, people are looking elsewhere for information, or tuning out altogether. And, as you suggested, the effect on our culture is breathtaking.

The Bostonian Exile   ·  September 21, 2005 12:04 PM

You're right, and it's an excellent reason to blog!

One of the things I didn't discuss is the erosion in writing skills of journalists. This, coupled with the dumbing down of the type of stories reported (shlocky human interest stuff occupying the front page) has led to the loss of intelligent readers. The problem, of course, is that catering to the less intelligent will not work if they cannot read!

Eric Scheie   ·  September 21, 2005 12:23 PM

I would not like to see the end of newspapers. I like the old-fashioned, "square", black-and-white look of a newspaper. Brings back good memories. All those cartoons with a boy standing on a street corner crying "Ex-tree! Ex-tree! Read all about it!", about some momentous event or other. I never did see that boy on the corner in real life, but he seems to have been a common figure in my father's day.

Reminds me of the old joke told during the New Deal era. The crusty old millionaire would buy a newspaper, glance at the headline, and then throw it away. The boy finally asked him why he did that.
The man said: "I'm looking for an obituary."
The boy said: "You won't find it there!"
The man replied: "This one will be."

When I think of newspapers, I think of our old paper, Salem, Oregon's Capital Journal (later, the Statesman-Journal). The main feature for us kids back then was the "funnies", i.e., the comic strips, and, on Sundays, the "colored funnies". Those old strips like "Pogo", "Li'l Abner", "Beetle Bailey", "Andy Capp", "B.C.". For a while there was an English strip my Dad liked, "Fred Basset", and a couple dog strips he didn't like. For a while we had "Odd Bodkins", which our friend Kim Eric Drexler especially liked, and a Christian strip called "Pilgrims". Later, sometime in the mid-1970s, we got "Doonsesbury", which my Dad also liked.

There were also the "serious funnies" like "Mary Worth", "Rex Morgan (my Dad liked that one better), M.D.", "Prince Valiant" (had I known how fascinated I would later become with that early transitional period of our Northern European West's history, I would have followed that strip more), "Steve Canyon", and "Steve Roper & Mike Nomad".

That last one was my favorite of all strips. Mike Nomad was a truck driver for "Proof" magazine, of which Steve Roper was the editor, and they also had a pretty secretary named Honeydew Melon. Mike had a Chinese landlady named Mah Jong. Roper and Nomad (and Nomad's girlfriends on occasion) constantly exposed crimes, often criminal schemes that they accidentally ran into while on vacation. They got into all kinds of situations while doing so, all kinds of predicaments. Lots of bondage scenes. "Steve Canyon" had a couple bondage scenes which have been etched indelibly into my psyche ever since (that was long before I ever heard of anything called "sex").

Other strips, e.g., "Blondie" (i.e., Dagwood Bumstead), "Dondi", "Alley Oop", "Dick Tracy", "Peanuts", "Apartment 3-G", etc., appeared in the Seattle papers when we came up to visit.

Then there was the editorial page. They had political artoons by cartoonists like Herblock (Herbert Block) and Bill Mauldin. Mauldin was drawing cartoons way back in World War II. we have a couple anthologies of his cartoons and his commentaries on them from that era, "Up Front" (his cartoons about the life of "so'jers" on the European front) and "Back Home" (dealing with the socio-political situation the "so'jers" encountered when they got back home). He was a true liberal, and toward the end of his life he came out against gun control.

There was another cartoonist who liked to slip the name of his beloved wife Lois into every cartoon and we always had fun looking for it (e.g., in the wrinkles of somebody's pants). This was long before I know anything about ideologies. I imagine they must have been liberal for that time because our parents didn't complain about it.

Later, I used to read the editorials all the time, including the letters to the editor. The page was pretty balanced, with a lot of conservative columnists in addition to the liberals. Most of the letters (or the ones that I remember anyway) were conservative. An Objectivist wrote a couple letters that I remember. For a while, I used to clip out letters, editorials, and cartoons that I particularly liked.

Somehow, I always associate that paper with my Dad (i.e., my father). Newspapapers always have a masculine look to them and I do always associate them with men or the male. Transcendental Science?

Newspapers today are killing themselves off with their Left-Wing and Communist slant. It wasn't always so. Back in my father's day, most newspapers leaned conservative overall, their wealthy Republican owners excercised much more control. But the New York Times allowed Walter Duranty in and let him lie about Stalin's atrocities. By 1964, newspapers were heavily anti-Golwater. It wasn't until the early 1970s, under Nixon and Agnew, that I first started hearing about a liberal or Left bias in the media. A book was written at that time, The Left-Leaning Antenna. For a while, there was an attempt to rectify the balance, add conservative columnists to the editorial pages, but the problem has been growing since to the point where it simply cannot be ignored. The media as a whole, newspapers, news magazines, TV, have been moving fuether and ever further and more blatantly to the Left. Major newspapers see their job no longer to be to report the news as is and then let the reader decide for himself or herself how to evaluate it, but rather to bring down any conservative or Republican President, by whatever means. (The Watergate imbroglio had a great deal to do with this, as you have often noted.) More and more readers are becoming disgusted at this and are turning away.

The real parasites who are destroying the newspapers are not bloggers but the latter-day Walter Durantys who have infiltrated and taken over. Newspapers and other media could rectify this mess by either
1) hiring more conservative reporters, editors, columnists, etc., to create a balance within each paper, or
2) openly, explicitly, honestly stating that they wish to be Liberal, Leftist, Democratic, etc., and then being countered by other papers which are openly, explicitly, honestly Conservative, Rightist, Republican, Objectivist, etc.. That has long been the practice on the European continent, going back to Chesterton's day and before, and it worked very well.

I was a newsboy who sold the Philadelphia Sunday papers on Saturday night in my home town of Mount Holly in NJ. My co worker and I took the papers in our express wagons and were posted on opposite sides of Main Street. This was in 1948-49-50. In those days Saturday night was the night all the farmers and others who lived out of town came in to do their shopping. All the stores were open and the town was lit up and crowded until nearly 10PM.

The Sunday editions probably cost about 15 or 20 cents. The daily Inquirer and Bulletin were 3 cents. I remember those prices because I had a paper route as well in those days and Saturday morning had to collect from my customers.

That little bit of nostalgia brings me to my point that I truly believe that "gotcha" journalism which started in the Nixon era and was compounded during the Reagan years was the beginning of the downfall of journalism here in the US. Sam Donaldson shouting disrespectfully at Reagan made me sick. It is worse today and I stopped reading all newsprint about 10 years ago.

That said, I would mourn the failure of the MSM, as it is still the source, however negative, of a lot of information. The blogosphere exists as an alternative to the lies and distortions in the press and TV news. The Internet would be much more barren if the MSM focused on facts instead of agenda.

I would read the papers today if I didn't know that in everyone, Bush is to blame for whatever ails the world at any given time. There is an old saying that even a blind pig finds acorns now and then. You would think that Bush gets up each morning and calls Karl Rove and says what can we do to screw up America to day. In 5 years he has certainly done something right. But you'd never know it from reading the front pages of the NYT or Wapo.

Sadly the MSM will continue their descent into oblivion, unnecessary as that may be. As the captain on the Titanic never slowed when he entered the icefield, the unsinkable NYT is taking on water and has very little to offer the very folks who might read her again.

Ed Poinsett   ·  September 21, 2005 7:57 PM

All the books by the engineer Henry Petroski are worth reading, but his memoir Paperboy is particularly good, especially for those made newspaper-nostalgic by this post.

Agricola   ·  September 22, 2005 8:40 PM

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