The story of the declining newspaper has been a running saga during the last decade. Since the early 2000s, many newspapers have laid off workers, reduced content, outsourced content, moved partly or entirely to an online format, or folded production completely. This has been devastating for local news in particular because many towns and urban centers alike have (or had) one major newspaper to choose from due to monopolies established long ago. Just recently the St. Louis Post-Dispatch laid off several managers with more cuts on the horizon. The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, which earned an outstanding reputation for its coverage of the post-Katrina disaster, is also laying off hundreds–a third of its workforce–in a plan that will also reduce daily publication to three days a week (a Times-Picayune reporter voiced her disdain here). Newspapers in both St. Louis and New Orleans are terribly important considering the social and economic difficulties that residents there face, including high crime rates and severe economic disparity.
The most popular narrative for this decline is that newspapers are falling victim to the new kid on the media block: the Internet. Newspapers, it goes, must adjust to a new business model in order to evolve into a digital format, which has presented new challenges in terms of how to pay for content and staff. Why would readers want to pay for information (available in print or online) they can otherwise get for free? Also, the advent of “citizen journalism” provides a plethora of voices that did not exist in previous generations, as the Internet blurs the line between producers and consumers. Paid journalist must compete with people writing for free.
The Internet has certainly presented a challenge for print medium and paid content. However, the decline of newspapers–and journalism in general–is much greater than the creation of the Internet. As Juan Gonzalez and Joe Torres point out in their wonderful new book News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, the decline of newspapers is tied very much to the business practices allowed through deregulation enacted during the last few decades (much of which also led to the Great Recession). In fact, the newspaper industry has often had a high profit margin–upwards of 20% for many companies–but recently that hasn’t seemed to be the case. At the beginning of the 21st century, this was still the case. So how did such a profitable sector slide into crisis less than a decade later?
The answer, according to Gonzalez and Torres in News of All the People, is that “Old Media’s crisis [is] largely a result of self-inflicted wounds” (pg. 349). Since the 1960s, newspaper companies increasingly sold out to bigger investors, who in turn focused on the profitability of newspapers as opposed to the long-term vitality and journalistic quality, as the smaller owners had done. By 1977, two out of every three newspapers were part of a newspaper corporation. These corporations did not, according to Gonzalez and Torres, focus on the long-term survival of newspapers, but rather the short-term profit motive. This contributed heavily to the current inability of newspapers to compete with the Internet.
There is much more to be said on this topic, but for now I will stop there. I do not wish to simplify the myriad reasons for the decline of newspapers, but suffice to say that corporate culture–the focus on short-term profits–did an immense disservice to the newspaper industry. Corporate managers specializing in making money as opposed to making news were unable to prepare the industry against any sort of change, be it technological, cultural, or social, etc. If capital had its way (which it might), investors will choose to milk newspapers for every penny. As for the public, it will lose a vital source of information essential to a functioning democracy. (One response to this problem is providing the news industry with public subsidies, which I hope to cover at a later time.)