Monday, January 07, 2008 • 12:33 PM Comments ()

News at a Crossroads: The Perceived Crisis with U.S. Newspapers

posted by Stephen J. Simurda

I’m not sure what it is about journalists, but I know of no other profession whose practitioners spend as much time gnashing their teeth about what they’ve done wrong or the overall problems of the field. At times journalists can seem almost obsessed with what’s wrong. But for newspaper journalists there is plenty to be concerned about these days. Print journalism is changing in dramatic ways and its future hangs precariously upon how the industry responds to the current set of challenges.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing newspapers is a steady decline in revenue. A generation ago, classified advertising made up a significant portion of total advertising revenue. Today, consumers can shop for cars, look for jobs, or find an apartment on the internet and the classified sections of most newspapers have shrunk significantly. In addition, “big box” stores on the outskirts of a town have often done away with many smaller, local advertisers who once helped sustain newspapers.

And an increasing amount of advertising dollars are being spent on internet sites such as Google and Yahoo and, therefore, not in newspapers. While newspaper web sites have shown strong growth, the revenue generated by them has not made up for the losses.

Newspaper circulation is also declining. In fact, overall circulation declined faster in 2006 than in 2005, a troubling trend. Demographically, studies show that young people are less likely to develop the habit reading a daily newspaper, which does not bode well for this trend reversing itself.

The newsrooms at many U.S. papers are also shrinking. Once proud newspapers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Dallas Morning News have lost hundreds of newsroom positions. Most papers have endured some constrictions of staff. As a result, newspapers are doing less in-depth and investigative reporting. International coverage has also suffered as many foreign bureaus have been closed as well. The quality of the product has suffered at a time when newspapers are desperately trying not to lose more readership.

In the midst of all this the newspaper industry is changing to adapt to new technologies. Increasingly reporters and editors are being asked to practice something called “convergence” journalism. My colleague Steve Fox spent 10 years practicing convergence journalism at washingtonpost.com and now teaches it at UMass-Amherst. I asked him to explain convergence journalism.

“What you’re essentially talking about is multi-platform journalism that involves print, the internet, audio and video,” Fox said, “All these technologies that used to be separate in the past aren’t anymore. The days of being able to do just one thing are gone.” Now reporters are being asked to write their stories on deadline but also to first post them on the paper’s web site, often with audio or video clips that they gathered during their reporting.

So newspapers with fewer human resources than in the past are asking their staff to do more than ever before. Fox said he didn’t think the quality of news would necessarily suffer, as long as reporters and editors continue to maintain the standards they always have. But he acknowledged that there is a fear in the business of the quality of work declining.

The challenges for newspapers are real, but at the same time, don’t expect the printed paper to go away any time soon. The Project for Excellence in Journalism estimates that on an average day roughly 51 million people still buy a newspaper and 124 million read one. Newspapers continue to be profitable businesses and they remain popular with many advertisers. Nevertheless, adaptation to a new environment is crucial. Bill Densmore, director of the New England News Forum, shared his thoughts on this subject.

“The challenge for newspapers is to reaffirm their role with readers because readers are no longer just passive consumers of news,” Densmore said, “They can create their own news on the internet.” The growth in personal blogs is evidence of this. “Newspapers used to think of themselves as gatekeepers,” Densmore added, “Now they need to be information valets.”

When I think of some of the grizzled reporters I’ve worked with over the years, the term information valet does not leap to mind. But the point is a valid one. With cable television and the internet the average person has virtually limitless sources of information available. Newspapers cannot assume that they will be part of that information mix. They must find new ways to serve the reader and make information that the reader wants easily accessible.

Obviously the internet is part of that. But the print version of the newspaper must be engaging as well. It’s possible that in a generation or two from now, an actual printed newspaper will seem unusual, but don’t bet on it. I suspect there will always be those for whom opening the morning paper actually involves paper.

--Stephen J. Simurda teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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