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For newspapers, news keeps getting worse

Published November 27, 2005

Last week, I wrote about Are Men Necessary? ; this week my column is: Are Newspapers Necessary?

This might sound odd to those of you who are reading this while drinking your morning coffee, the same way you have consumed the news for years, if not decades. But the question is being asked inside the industry. No, not asked - studied, analyzed, crunched and turned upside down and shaken.

That's because the road ahead does not look rosy. Without a new economic model or a change of reading habits by 30-somethings, local daily newspapers may soon become a relic of another era - a time when Americans had an inclination to understand the complexities of the world around them, as opposed to what Britney named her kid.

In a pithy summing up of the problem that people don't seem willing to actually buy their news anymore, one editor said that the well-known acronym NEWS (north, east, west, south) today stands for Not Ever Willing to Spend money.

Flagging circulation is the biggest fret, because advertising rates are pegged to readership. There has been a 30-year decline in newspaper circulation that has sped up in recent years, and the readers who remain are decidedly older. Only 23 percent of people age 18 to 29 say they read a newspaper "yesterday," while 60 percent of people 65 and older say they had, according to the Annual Report on American Journalism. The only salvation is that the type of reader whom advertisers find attractive is still subscribing. Seventy-two percent of college graduates and 74 percent of families making more than $75,000 are regular readers.

Meanwhile, People magazine is thriving, ranking first in 2004 in advertising revenue among domestic magazines. That's 14 years straight.

Younger people are not abandoning newspapers entirely. They are turning to online sources. But unless those measly ad rates for online advertisers take a spike upward, there soon won't be any paid staff reporting the news to fill those online versions.

The squeeze is coming from all quarters. Google, the Internet search giant, has just announced that it's launching Google Base, a database for its users who are invited to submit anything they want, including classified ads. These ads are a newspaper's bread and butter, representing about 35 percent of annual revenue. Which 35 percent of the paper would you want to do without?

Wall Street has also taken a whack at the industry. Not satisfied with a 19 percent profit last year, stockholders of the newspaper chain Knight Ridder want it sold. How are profits increased when ad revenues and circulation are lagging? By slicing a paper's news gathering to the bone. The Miami Herald , one of Knight Ridder's flagships, is now a thin gruel compared to the hearty stew it was in the 1980s, before budget cuts to satisfy investors gutted its news staff. Corporate ownership doesn't direct the editorial content of newspapers as much as eviscerate it. (Thankfully, this newspaper, though a profitmaking enterprise that pays taxes, is owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute, a rare and liberating arrangement.)

So, newspapers are in trouble. I realize that other old-guard businesses are foundering as well. General Motors is teetering, as are a number of major airlines, but newspapers are distinct from other commodities. Newspapers have a vital role to play in informing citizens about what their government is up to and readying them for democratic responsibilities.

Of the importance of the Fourth Estate, Thomas Jefferson said: "The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

A recent study found that newspaper readers are less politically polarized than consumers of other media, because they receive more comprehensive and balanced coverage of issues.

Could broadcast and cable news offer the same breadth and depth? They could, but don't and won't. As Ted Koppel ended his run on Nightline last week, he bemoaned the way advertising is driving the content of news. "More emphasis is placed now on trying to tailor the news and tailor the stories we cover to the perceived interests of our favorite commercial customers," Koppel told NPR.

Why were stories on Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway served up endlessly, when major issues such as our crushing deficit and private-sector pension defaults received little notice? Blame producers in search of women viewers age 18 to 39, the premier demographic for advertisers.

Fox News gives its audience what it wants, too. That's why, in 2003, a survey from the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that 67 percent of its loyal viewers believed the fallacy that Saddam Hussein was connected to al-Qaida, whereas only 40 percent of those who relied on print media were confused on that point.

Welcome to the "informed" electorate of a newspaper-free world. It's already starting to give us the government we deserve.

[Last modified November 27, 2005, 01:17:13]

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