Are Newspapers Doomed?

Jeff Alworth

In the 21st Century, if you want to receive news, you have a seemingly endless number of sources: radio, television, internet, your cell phone, podcasts.  Or, you can go the 18th Century route and have a kid bring you day-old news printed on the pulped skins of dead trees.  Of all these modes, guess which one is in serious trouble?

This weekend, The Oregonian debuts its newest attempt to halt the march of obsolescence.  The following day, the New York Times tries a different strategy.  Yet with newspaper circulations down 13% in the last 20 years, the rise of a raft of new satellite media nipping at their heels, and a whole generation who have abandoned daily subscriptions, are they just delaying the inevitable?

Functional Obsolescence
Newspapers survived the radio and television eras relatively unharmed. Why, then, has the internet been so devastating? Historically, local newspapers have performed several functions, and only one of these is news delivery.  They also create a touchstone between advertisers and consumers, provide information about local events and happenings, and serve as a marketplace.  Radio and television have never been able to provide these other functions, but with online auctions, email listservs, and e-tailing, the internet can.  In particular, classified sales, long a major breadwinner for newspapers, are slumping rapidly in the face of Craigslist, Monster, and eBay.

Nationalization of News
A second phenomenon afflicting local papers is the trend toward nationalization.  Fifty years ago, the amount of national news came in at a dribble through radio, the nightly news, and the few stories newspapers could fit into section A.  Now we get torrents of information from around the globe. Entertainment, sports, business, and news are all readily available at any moment.  Our physical orientation has grown, and we now relate to the country, and even world, as an extended community.  It's difficult for dailies to make the small happenings in a hometown as exciting as the big events on offer from across the country.  As a result, more and more news coverage becomes nationalized, and worse, sensationalized, in an effort to attract eyeballs.  The biggest story in a city may be the sale of a local utility, but if Michael Jackson is being tried for child molestation, he's going to get more coverage.

Loss of Community
Because they performed the multiple functions of delivering local news, serving as a marketplace for commerce and a bulletin board for upcoming events, newspapers helped define the local community.  That's why, when USA Today was launched in 1982, the concept of a "national" paper seemed so bizarre--it defied our concept of what a newspaper was.  As fewer and fewer people read the newspaper, that community begins to fragment.  Now we get news via the internet, we learn about upcoming events through emails, and we shop online, in our jammies.  An inadvertent effect of newspapers was that we all had a single touchstone, like a community center we came to each day.  Now we liberals listen to NPR and KPOJ while conservatives tune in Lars and Limbaugh.  I get updates from the Northwest Film Center and the Bus Project, while other citizens receive emails from Michael Medved and (or whatever--you get the point).  We have far less in common to talk about because we don't get the same news.

The Future of Newspapers
Newspapers are in real trouble.  For the first time in 350 years, newspapers don't have a unique function.  In the past month, The Oregonian has changed up its Metro page, and now the paper is trying to lure Sunday readers back with shorter news and a new features section (which sounds sort of bloggy to me).  We've watched as the Portland Tribune has tried to stave off a slow death with various changes in content, personnel, and focus.  Nationally, the New York Times hopes it can get people to pony up $50 to read Paul Krugman, which will please advertisers who want a more highly selective demographic to target.  Yet it's not clear that content changes are an adequate solution--after all, content is the one thing consumers have in spades.

I hope they're able to figure it out.  Without local papers, we'll be subject to even more sensationalism, even less texture and local color.  Papers like the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal will survive, but they won't be covering Portland, Oregon.  It's likely that free weeklies like Willamette Week, with smaller overhead, will also survive.  But no matter how good a weekly is, it will never adequately cover all local news. We'll feel further erosion in the local community, and we will know less about what our local leaders are up to. Or each other.  Readers may not be clamoring for the content local newspapers provide, but to a city, it's critically important.  That's the intractable problem confronting papers as they study the media landscape in the new millennium.

I wish them luck.

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    Great stuff, Jeff.

    Two thoughts:

    <h1>1 - if the newspapers really want to fix their revenue problems,they'd do well to fix their online classifieds. The Oregonian, for example, is a complete and total disaster. They're barely searchable, horribly categorized (alpha by first letter?!), and generally impossible to navigate. The paper could raise HUGE amounts of revenue by having a bonus-classified rate that would include online photos of products for sale, extended text online, etc. Not only that, but if they simply deployed Google ads with their classifieds - they'd be a) providing a service that buyers want, when they want it, and b) making big money.</h1> <h1>2 - before one-trick-pony Tenskwatawa jumps in here with a rant about TV news... rest assured that TV is dying too. In the age of Tivo, television advertising is dying before our eyes. I wrote about this over at, so I'll shut up now.</h1>
  • keyfur (unverified)

    being a fan of the newspaper i am depressed by the current state of papers. few offer anything spectacular. many are some degree of mediocre or worse.

    i think that the funcitional obselesence take above is the best explanation. newspapers should be about in depth coverage of the issues. it is the thing newspapers can do much better than tv news. the internets have made it much cheaper and easier to provide that coverage. i have several newspaper sites that i visit everyday, but i must admit that the majority of my news comes from dailykos, mydd, or eschaton. occasionally they will send me off to search for more coverage of an event, but their links and analysis are generally all i need. these sites operate with so much less overhead than a traditional paper. granted, these sites rely a great deal on the sites of various newspapers. if the newspaper sites die i wonder what would happen to the blog sites. (also i realize that i am being brainwashed by these sites, so no need to point out the lack of objectivity found there. i feel that i am a big enough boy to provide my own objectivity.)

    where newspapers really need to step up is the coverage of local issues. sure, i get a lot of the info i need from blueoregon, but the oregonian must have something to add to the stew. turn those reporting tools loose on local and state problems. i am sure that there is enough going on here to fill up those pages. other outlets (dailykos, la times, washington post, etc) cannot devote the energy each locality deserves for in depth reporting. heck, even the oregonian cannot devote enough energy to properly cover the state. it is my firm belief that there is a lot going on and if newspapers properly tap into it they will prosper.

    btw, is anyone else scared of the "high definition" overhaul debuting in a couple of days? i hope for the best, but fear the worst.

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    The NYTimes is charging $49 bucks if we want to read the op-ed pieces on line starting 9/19. If we have a daily subscription to the NYTimes, no additional charge. Goodbye Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd and even that pesky David Brooks. I'm going to miss the columns about how Bush appointed Karl Rove as the person in charge of the Katrina recovery. Still saying what he thinks America wants to hear while politicizing the recovery process.

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)

    Okay, so at the moment I'm reading blueoregon on my laptop in a coffeehouse, but I can't bring myself to sit in front of a computer in the morning while I'm having my morning coffee. Gotta sit back in my easy chair, or on the porch, and read the Oregonian. I tried reading the NY Times online in the morning and it's just not right.

    Besides, the sports box scores take too much time to load on-line. You can scan all the boxscores in the newpaper at one time. And you can flip through pages and pick out what you want to read. And if you want to save some story, all you have to do is cut it out of the paper.

    There must be enough old curmudgeons like me to keep newspapers going for another couple of decades. And what about the crossword puzzle? You gotta do the crossword puzzle every day to fend off Alzheimers, you know. How do you do a crossword puzzle online?

    To be more realistic, however, it's probably a good idea for newspapers to convert their distribution to the Internet as much as they can. The cost of newsprint is a huge overhead and without it, publishers can operate with far less revenue. If they could figure out a way to secure a decent advertising base, they wouldn't have to charge a subscription fee.

    A newspaper that is going to survive, either in print or online, needs to make local news and people coverage its priority. It should be the resource you use when you need to find out something and don't want to fumble through a bunch of ill-designed web pages for government agencies. It should be the kind of place where all the atomized communities (the people who listen to NPR and those who listen to Lars and those who just dig weird DJ's doing pranks in the morning) come together. And maybe this is a personal bias, but a viable newspaper should publish good writing, by both its own staff and contributors. I am getting really bored by the Oregonian's habit of publishing local Op Ed pieces by just about every axe grinder around, half of which is written in smarmy bureaucratese. I'm either bored or just peeved by most of the O's columnists, some of whom can't write two coherent sentences in a row, even when they aren't riding a bike across the state. The editors of the O should offer money to some of the better local writers in town, and several who contribute to blueoregon, to produce columns. Blogging is fun, but you reach lots more people through a newspaper.

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    I agree that local news has to be a priority for newspapers, else they're going to die off.

    It's very easy now to get all the national/international news you want. It's harder and harder to get the local stuff.

    The Oregonian needs to start focusing more on local stuff and a LOT less on national/international stuff.

    The only items I read the Oregonian for are local stories. We buy it on Sundays for the ads and coupons.

    Our paper out in Gresham is an absolute joke. It's not a newspaper-- it's a feature magazine on newsprint. There's very little coverage of local news, how crime is spreading out of Rockwood and into the rest of town, etc. There are plenty of stories about people, though.

    Newspapers also have to realize that there are a lot of people who just don't want to read the "newspaper" anymore. They do want to read the news, though. Having the full newspaper online, complete with ads, is a must. The online ads can then link to the company's website, if one is available.

    On the website you can even have exclusive content (such as stories that were cut due to space) as well as more in-depth articles on issues. Many times reporters will have twice as much info as actually makes it into the paper. This is a big item on things like city council or county commission meetings were numerous important topics are discussed. Often times you only hear about the top 1 or 2 items, as that's all the room available.

    They just need to throw in a few features with the ads, and they'll be able to charge more for those ads.

    A better classified section is a must. Heck, the ability to easily buy classified ads online would be good as well.

    You should be able to easily look at a section of classifieds without having to go through several pages. Sometimes you just want to look at all cars for sale. Or all employment ads under Sales. And the search feature should work much better than it does. I have trouble with it all the time.

    Online forums for those newspapers need to be kept on topic and harassment-free. Reporters and other employees could help seed conversations on various topics.

    The Oregon Live forums used to work that way back when there was something like 6 full-time employees who worked in the forums.

    Keeping them on topic, without extreme harassment, etc. helps you to be able to get advertisers on those pages. Right now, very few companies want to touch Oregon Live with a 10-foot pole.

    It's all about going to the advertisers with the facts and numbers that show the Internet is where they want to advertise.

    By organizing their site correctly, having all the stories online, and having at least the past month of archives available, you'll increase readership. You'll definitely increase readership if the info on their website is heavily reliant on local news and not national/international.

    If newspapers like the Oregonian don't change, they're going to be gone before long.

  • keyfur (unverified)

    Gil Johnson said: And what about the crossword puzzle? You gotta do the crossword puzzle every day to fend off Alzheimers, you know. How do you do a crossword puzzle online?

    the la times, washington post, and ny times all have crosswords that can be done on line. it is not as much fun as the paper in front of you, however. the la times and the post do have printable versions that you can download and print through a word processor or just print from your web browser.

    good to know that i am combating alzheimers!

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    Gil, I'm totally with you on the paper and coffee thing. I tried to figure out a way to end the post on that note, but I had to depend on my fellow anachronisms to chime in. Somehow coffee and internet at 6:30 am just doesn't cut it.

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)

    Not to mention trying to eat a decent breakfast over a keyboard.

  • howard (unverified)

    If I were the publisher of The Oregonian I would be looking hard at the spending side of the budget. I would start by encouraging four associate editors to find employment elsewhere and move on to a 10% reduction in the employment rolls companywide.

    The Oregonian can no longer afford the luxury of ignoring the spending side of the budget.

  • cicolini (unverified)

    The Oregonian has been enormously profitable for the past thirty years. Though regular numbers are hard to find (and private! as the paper is owned by the Newhouse family), Oregonian staffers have never known layoffs or salary cuts. Most if not all outside of the content-makers can expect when hired to retire from the paper. Nepotism is highly valued. Writing, especially features, aren't. Never have been. It's dark and foggy up there and an iceberg is in their path.

    Does Fred Stickel know how to turn his computer on? I doubt it. He's 83.

    So sentimental types who need boxscores with coffee (quite a vertical market!) will continue to buy something like a newspaper. But really? A design makeover? Polish a turd?

    The question is, how will young journalist types be encouraged to pester the powerful and write it all down - and get paid for it. Frankly, it's the damn volunteers which are driving the market into the ground!

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    I can't imagine a day without the paper. Been doing it for 30 years at least. I read tons of stuff on-line too, but the paper is different not only for the medium but for content. I think if the O offered all it's articles on-line in an attractive, easy to use, well-designed site, I'd be willing to pay for it, just like I pay for the morning rag. (Classifieds in print are history; there's no hope of competing with a well-designed ad site. Oregon-live is so bad its an embarrasment to Oregonians.)

    But on the cost side, I throw away at least half the paper without ever looking at it, starting with the clsasifieds. On Sundays, it's way worse. It makes no sense to waste all that newsprint and ink and delivery labor and advertiser dollars, when I'm just going to throw it away. Unfortunately, I'm sure the salaries are paid for by advertisers, not subscribers.

    I pay to get local perspective on news, local news, local columnists, and local features. I happen to prefer paper as a medium, but I'd subscribe to get that on-line too. What I won't do is subscribe to something that tries to overload me with ads I don't want, like the printed paper does. Not only are they harder to ignore on-line, but if they had the same ratio of ads to content on-line, you'd never be able to find the content. So there goes most of the paper's revenue, I'm afraid. Seems like a tough business. I think the NYT is on the right track.

  • LT (unverified)

    There is quite a feature in the new Sunday Oregonian which I bought this afternoon. Perhaps the 5 "Oregon voices" were chosen to rile up people because I think at best an argument can be made for 4 of them. There is a dandy piece on Stafford Hansell (if that name doesn't mean anything, be sure to read the article) and an email address for comments on what needs to be changed in the legislature.

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    Paulie, I think you continue to get full access to all NY Times materials; the $49 gives you full historical archive access and access to the op ed writers blogs and personal emails.

    I think the NY Times will survive as a multimedia empire and a newspaper to the elite. Most large dailies in major cities are doing OK.

    It's the secondary dailies like the O that are really hurting. And ironically, unlike Jenni, the "new local" focus of the O is close to killing it for me. I separated out the crap from the news in today's "High Definition" O and I'm convinced the paper is thinner than ever. Even the front story on mortgages was a total recycle.

    So all national and int'l news will now be "localized"? Great. Just what I need. If only there were a substitute for the Metro page. I'd dump the O in a second.

    Jeff, last comment: I don't think it's the Internet that has hammered newsppaers--it's the cable era and the 24 hour news cycle.

  • Brian Wagner (unverified)

    just a note about the Oregonian's OregonLive horror. I recently talked with a section editor about the site, and he confessed that everyone at the Oregonian knows oregonlive is a complete disaster. In fact, they hate it. But, because they are owned by Newhouse, and Newhouse requires all their papers to use the same website template, they have absolutely zero control over the site. In fact, they are even considering creating their own secondary website (not controlled by Newhouse) where they can actually serve readers' needs.

    Why does the NYTimes even begin to think it can charge money, especially when many of its readers arent WSJ-rich? Because it knows it runs a quality website. The Oregonian right now has a black hole on the internet which they have no control over. If they don't start that secondary site they are talking about, they'll be seeing more problems 10 years from now than they can begin to confront.

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    I'm not talking about writing national/international stories with a local twist. I'm talking about local stories.

    Stories about...

    • what city councils across the state are doing

    • what problems cities around the state are doing

    • successes that communities are having with their schools, parks, etc.

    • upcoming events in our community-- not a calendar listing, but a real story about big events, events popular to the community, etc.

    • stories about the changes cities are going through-- such as how crime is now moving from the Rockwood area into the rest of Gresham

    I'm talking about true local stories.

    Many of us would like to know more about what is going on in our communities. Not everyone can make it to the city council, county commission, school district, college district, METRO board, etc. meeting. If you're lucky, the paper may cover 1 issue out of a two hour (or more) long meeting. There is so much more that is important to the people that can be covered.

    I don't go to the Oregonian's website for national news. I use Yahoo News and other such sites for national/international stuff. I go to their website to read a story about the Wal-Mart trying to go into my neighborhood. Or what happened at the last city council meeting. Or how my county commission decided on an important issue.

    What the Oregonian should do is contact their counterparts at Alabama Live, Michigan Live, etc. and get everyone together on opposing the current templating of their newspaper sites. If all the papers stick together, they could get things to change.

    They need to make Advance Publications and Advance Internet work together as a team. They're overlapping in their efforts too much, which is wasteful. All of Advance Internet's websites suck-- when I worked for them we told them as much. They don't care, because the templates make things quick and easy. It also means that many advertisers want nothing to do with their site.

  • cicolini (unverified)

    Jenni, you're right about the disconnect between the hardcopy and softcopy people. This disconnect is the death knell. You bet - no one under 40 who is a regular news reader has EVER looked to The Oregonian for national / international. It was only where there was a LACK of competition where companies like this have thrived.

    Truth - they'll be sucked dry over the next decade as their readership dies out, then fold.

    But your solution - deep local news - isn't a solution. It's a 2 - 5% issue, only a small demographic. Too small to draw advertisers.

    Google news, Craig’s List, NetFlicks, etc. This is the end of newspapers.

    You might find the rustle of dry paper comforting in the morning. But the sooner this devolution happens, the sooner we can get on to the future and find out what’s next.

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    First, I don't necessarily mean "deep" local news. I'm just talking about local news. What's happening around the state. More than a two line item on a community calendar about an upcoming event.

    As I have a background in newspapers, I've talked to thousands of people on this topic. Over and over again the fact that the Oregonian covers so little about what is going on in Oregon & SW Washington came up.

    Most said that when it came to world/international news, they didn't look to the Oregonian for that news. Major stories (Katrina, 9/11 anniversary, etc.) they do want to see in the paper. However, they don't want to see 50%+ of the paper be from outside of Oregon/SW Washington.

    They want to be able to open the local daily and know what is going on locally.

    And Google news and such places is only good for national/international news and big stories. Once again, I can't go to google and get a news story on what my local school board or city council has done.

    Craigs List is great and all, but only a small population of people put classified ads on it. I can find a lot more ads in the Oregonian and on Oregon Live than I can Craig's List.

    I've read several stories about how some big dailies around the world have increased readership, especially among young people.

    The first change is in format. They've gone to a smaller paper (it's something like 85% smaller... it fits better on the rolls of paper, meaning less waste). They've changed the way the pages look. They've done things with color.

    There are things the Oregonian can do to increase readership both online and in print. The question is, will they do it?

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