Are Newspapers Doomed?

Joseph Epstein – Commentary

A crotchety, conservative take on the fate of the traditional media.
The entire piece, which seems to trail off into the same kind of predictability the author condemns in the daily press can be found at the link below.
Copyright Commentary
ìClearly,î said Adam to Eve as they departed the Garden of Eden, ìweíre living in an age of transition.î A joke, of courseóbut also not quite a joke, because when has the history of the world been anything other than one damned transition after another? Yet sometimes, in certain realms, transitions seem to stand out with utter distinctiveness, and this seems to be the case with the fortune of printed newspapers at the present moment. As a medium and as an institution, the newspaper is going through an age of transition in excelsis, and nobody can confidently say how it will end or what will come next.
To begin with familiar facts, statistics on readership have been pointing downward, significantly downward, for some time now. Four-fifths of Americans once read newspapers; today, apparently fewer than half do. Among adults, in the decade 1990-2000, daily readership fell from 52.6 percent to 37.5 percent. Among the young, things are much worse: in one study, only 19 percent of those between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four reported consulting a daily paper, and only 9 percent trusted the information purveyed there; a mere 8 percent found newspapers helpful, while 4 percent thought them entertaining.
From 1999 to 2004, according to the Newspaper Association of America, general circulation dropped by another 1.3 million. Reflecting both that fact and the ferocious competition for classified ads from free online bulletin boards like craigslist.org, advertising revenue has been stagnant at best, while printing and productions costs have gone remorselessly upward. As a result, the New York Times Company has cut some 700 jobs from its various papers. The Baltimore Sun, owned by the Chicago Tribune, is closing down its five international bureaus. Second papers in many cities have locked their doors.
This bleeding phenomenon is not restricted to the United States, and no bets should be placed on the likely success of steps taken by papers to stanch the flow. The Wall Street Journal, in an effort to save money on production costs, is trimming the width of its pages, from 15 to 12 inches. In England, the once venerable Guardian, in a mad scramble to retain its older readers and find younger ones, has radically redesigned itself by becoming smaller. Londonís Independent has gone tabloid, and so has the once revered Times, its publisher preferring the euphemism ìcompact.î
For those of us who grew up with newspapers in our daily regimen, sometimes with not one but two newspapers in our homes, it is all a bit difficult to take in. As early as 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that even frontier families in upper Michigan had a weekly paper delivered. A.J. Liebling, the New Yorkerís writer on the press, used to say that he judged any new city he visited by the taste of its water and the quality of its newspapers.
The paper to which you subscribed, or that your father brought home from work, told a good deal about your family: its social class, its level of education, its politics. Among the five major dailies in the Chicago of my early boyhood, my father preferred the Daily News, an afternoon paper reputed to have excellent foreign correspondents. Democratic in its general political affiliation, though not aggressively so, the Daily News was considered the intelligent Chicagoanís paper.
My father certainly took it seriously. I remember asking him in 1952, as a boy of fifteen, about whom he intended to vote for in the presidential election between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. ìIím not sure,î he said. ìI think Iíll wait to see which way Lippmann is going.î
The degree of respect then accorded the syndicated columnist Walter Lippmann is hard to imagine in our own time. In good part, his cachet derived from his readersí belief not only in his intelligence but in his impartiality. Lippmann, it was thought, cared about what was best for the country; he wasnít already lined up; you couldnít be certain which way he would go.
Of the two candidates in 1952, Stevenson, the intellectually cultivated Democrat, was without a doubt the man Lippmann would have preferred to have lunch with. But in the end he went for Eisenhoweróhis reason being, as I recall, that the country needed a strong leader with a large majority behind him, a man who, among other things, could face down the obstreperous Red-baiting of Senator Joseph McCarthy. My father, a lifelong Democrat, followed Lippmann and crossed over to vote for Eisenhower.
My father took his paper seriously in another way, too. He read it after dinner and ingested it, like that dinner, slowly, treating it as a kind of second dessert: something at once nutritive and entertaining. He was in no great hurry to finish.
Today, his son reads no Chicago newspaper whatsoever. A serial killer could be living in my apartment building, and I would be unaware of it until informed by my neighbors. As for the power of the press to shape and even change my mind, I am in the condition of George Santayana, who wrote to his sister in 1915 that he was too old to ìbe influenced by newspaper argument. When I read them I form perhaps a new opinion of the newspaper but seldom a new opinion on the subject discussed.î
I do subscribe to the New York Times, which I read without a scintilla of glee. I feel I need it, chiefly to discover who in my cultural world has died, or been honored (probably unjustly), or has turned out some new piece of work that I ought to be aware of. I rarely give the daily Times more than a half-hour, if that. I begin with the obituaries. Next, I check the op-ed page, mostly to see if anyone has hit upon a novel way of denigrating President Bush; the answer is invariably no, though they seem never to tire of trying. I glimpse the letters to the editor in hopes of finding someone after my own heart. I almost never read the editorials, following the advice of the journalist Jack Germond who once compared the writing of a newspaper editorial to wetting oneself in a dark-blue serge suit: ìIt gives you a nice warm feeling, but nobody notices.î
The arts section, which in the Times is increasingly less about the arts and more about television, rock íní roll, and celebrity, does not detain me long. Sports is another matter, for I do have the sports disease in a chronic and soon to be terminal stage; I run my eyes over these pages, turning in spring, summer, and fall to see who is pitching in that dayís Cubs and White Sox games. And I always check the business section, where some of the better writing in the Times appears and where the reporting, because so much is at stake, tends to be more trustworthy.
Finallyóquickly, very quicklyóI run through the so-called hard news, taking in most of it at the headline level. I seem able to sleep perfectly soundly these days without knowing the names of the current presidents or prime ministers of Peru, India, Japan, and Poland. For the rest, the point of view that permeates the news coverage in the Times is by now so yawningly predictable that I spare myself the effort of absorbing the facts that seem to serve as so much tedious filler.
Am I typical in my casual disregard? I suspect so. Everyone agrees that print newspapers are in trouble today, and almost everyone agrees on the reasons. Foremost among them is the vast improvement in the technology of delivering information, which has combined in lethal ways with a serious change in the national temperament.
The technological change has to do with the increase in the number of television cable channels and the astonishing amount of news floating around in cyberspace. As Richard A. Posner has written, ìThe publicís consumption of news and opinion used to be like sucking on a straw; now itís like being sprayed by a fire hose.î
The temperamental change has to do with the national attention span. The critic Walter Benjamin said, as long ago as the 1930ís, that the chief emotion generated by reading the newspapers is impatience. His remark is all the more pertinent today, when the very definition of what constitutes important information is up for grabs. More and more, in a shift that cuts across age, social class, and even educational lines, important information means information that matters to me, now.
And this is where the two changes intersect. Not only are we acquiring our information from new places but we are taking it pretty much on our own terms. The magazine Wired recently defined the word ìegocastingî as ìthe consumption of on-demand music, movies, television, and other media that cater to individual and not mass-market tastes.î The news, too, is now getting to be on-demand.
Instead of beginning their day with coffee and the newspaper, there to read what editors have selected for their enlightenment, people, and young people in particular, wait for a free moment to go online. No longer need they wade through thickets of stories and features of no interest to them, and least of all need they do so on the websites of newspapers, where the owners are hoping to regain the readers lost to print. Instead, they go to more specialized purveyors of information, including instant-messaging providers, targeted news sites, blogs, and online ìzines.î
Much cogitation has been devoted to the question of young peopleís lack of interest in traditional news. According to one theory, which is by now an entrenched clichÈ, the young, having grown up with television and computers as their constant companions, are ìvisual-minded,î and hence averse to print. Another theory holds that young people do not feel themselves implicated in the larger world; for them, news of that world isnít where the action is. A more flattering corollary of this is that grown-up journalism strikes the young as hopelessly out of date. All that solemn good-guy/bad-guy reporting, the taking seriously of opÈra-bouffe characters like Jesse Jackson or Al Gore or Tom DeLay, the false complexity of ìin-depthî television reporting ‡ la 60 Minutesóthis, for them, is so much hot air. They prefer to watch Jon Stewartís The Daily Show on the Comedy Central cable channel, where traditional news is mocked and pilloried as obvious nonsense.
Whatever the validity of this theorizing, it is also beside the point. For as the grim statistics confirm, the young are hardly alone in turning away from newspapers. Nor are they alone responsible for the dizzying growth of the so-called blogosphere, said to be increasing by 70,000 sites a day (according to the search portal technorati.com). In the first half of this year alone, the number of new blogs grew from 7.8 to 14.2 million. And if the numbers are dizzying, the sheer amount of information floating around is enough to give a person a serious case of Newsheimers.
Astonishing results are reported when news is passed from one blog to another: scores if not hundreds of thousands of hits, and, on sites that post readersí reactions, responses that can often be more impressive in research and reasoning than anything likely to turn up in print. Newspaper journalists themselves often get their stories from blogs, and bloggers have been extremely useful in verifying or refuting the erroneous reportage of mainstream journalists. The only place to get a reasonably straight account of news about Israel and the Palestinians, according to Stephanie Gutmann, author of The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Struggle for Media Supremacy, is in the blogosphere.


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