Out of Print - The death of the American newspaper

Eric Alterman has a great article in The New Yorker this month about the history of, and the eventual end of, the great American newspaper. The print newspaper industry has been expecting such a collapse for decades now, but with a continual decline in readership, the expensive costs involved in printing, and readers turning to the likes of the internet for most of their classified needs (a major revenue generator for print publications) the end might be coming more quickly than we anticipated. No, I don’t see print suddenly falling off the map, but as far as I can tell there are going to be drastically fewer daily newspapers in circulation (especially in small communities) and probably, around the turn of the decade, most of those in the print newspaper business will become exclusively digital.

Where are things moving to? Your web browser? Your iPhone? Your TV? RSS Feeds? Where ever things are headed, I’m pretty certain your news will stop showing up on your front doorstep very soon.

Most publishers in the industry have reacted to the collapse of the print business model with a death spiral of budget cuts, bureau closings, buyouts, layoffs, and reductions in physical page size. Since 1990, 1/4 of all American newspaper jobs have disappeared. The columnist Molly Ivins complained shortly before her death about the industry’s solution to this problem, instead of trying something innovative and new they were instead making “our product smaller and less helpful and less interesting”.

That may help explain why the dwindling number of Americans who buy and read a daily paper are spending less time with it; the average read time is down to less than fifteen hours a month. Only 19% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 claim to even look at a daily newspaper. The average age of the American newspaper reader is 55 and rising.

Philip Meyer, in his book ‘The Vanishing Newspaper’, predicts that the final edition of the last standing newspaper will appear on somebody’s doorstep one day in 2043. It may be unkind to point out that all these perilous trends coincide with the opening, this spring, of The Newseum (a $450 million dollar project), in Washington, D.C., but more and more, what Bill Keller calls “that lovable old-fashioned bundle of ink and cellulose” is starting to feel like an artifact more fit for displaying under archival glass.

The New Yorker

This page was last updated on April 01, 2008.