What would our civilization be like without newspapers? Your leisurely breakfast with a cuppa joe while reading the important news of the day might become a relic of the past.
As sad as it might be, this day may soon be approaching. Dwindling readership and advertising revenues have put many formidable newspapers out of business with others at the brink of going under.
This form of communications has been the bulwark of our society going back to Colonial Days of the original Tea Party. As printing techniques improved with the invention of lino-type in the late 19th century, American society has depended on the newspapers to be its primary information source.
Much has changed in the last decade as the Third Estate has declined in importance. Newsprint has been surpassed by other media outlets that the public increasingly prefers. As an individual who bleeds headlines, gallows, deadlines, and scoops, it makes me sad to know newspapers are struggling so much these days.
With this frame of mind I recently listened to a lecture given by Daniel Borenstein, renowned editorial writer and columnist for the Contra Costa Times he gave to the Democratic Club of Rossmoor. At his publication, which is part of the regional Bay Area News Group, less revenue coming in has meant fewer reporters covering a more complex world and communities.
Borenstein recounted how the Capitol Bureau with a staff of seven has been reduced to just one person working in the Sacramento beat. Back when Dean Lesher owned The Times, several writers covered a beat. Now a single reporter wears many hats in trying to keep up with what is happening in the communities of the Diablo Valley.
Currently the county’s largest city, Concord, shares a reporter who is also responsible for Pleasant Hill. Readers of the Contra Costa Times have noticed of late how the quality of local news coverage has suffered.
As the nearby graph illustrates, newspaper circulation and revenues have been in a downward spiral since 2006. What are the reasons are for this decline? It is certainly not the fault of television or radio. While these entities increased their influence since World War II, their competitors in the print media, including magazines, did not suffer at all, until recently.
This leaves only the Internet as the villain that has displaced newspapers from the primary way Americans receive their news fix on a daily basis. Google Ask.com, Yahoo, AOL, Bing, Face book, U-Tube, Twitter, and a myriad of search engines that provide a smorgasbord of options, have introduced withering competition that threatens to make the daily newspaper obsolete.
There are no perceptible deadlines on the Internet similar to when a printed publication must go to press. Information is released instantly. This entails little overhead, zero printing and distribution expenses to be passed on to consumers that access news and entertainment in cyberspace.
Dan Borenstein is totally correct when he laments the loss of fairness to all sides of an issue synonymous with the decline of the daily newspaper. Borenstein expressed concern that with daily print newspapers losing prominence, there will not be other media outlets to provide a similar objective approach in covering current events and election campaigns.
Part of the problem claims Borenstein is that with the increased prominence of the internet, journalism school standards that are practiced in his trade are no longer applicable to new players spawned by Internet communications. Bloggers, which in many cases may have strong ideological leanings, are not obligated to present a balanced point of view to their readers.
It appears that public opinion is drifting to the extremes of the political spectrum in contrast to the legacy perception of a strong political center that dominated political discourse and debate.
It isn’t completely fair to blame the influence of the Internet with the chaos that exists with Congress in Washington D.C.. Yet, it sure makes one nostalgic for the good old days when the New York Times, Washington Post, and other publications were forming perceptions around the issues of the day on a purported non-partisan basis.
The big question for the future is whether daily newspapers can be reinvented to become economically viable in tomorrow’s cultural milieu. One strategy being explored by the Contra Costa Times and competitors including the S.F. Chronicle is to publish an online e-edition partially replacing traditional print editions of the publication. Yet to be determined is whether this format will attract former readers and create advertising revenues to support the bottom line.
At this point no one knows whether daily print newspapers will survive as they are presently constituted or co-exist in an uneasy partnership as part of the internet. Newspapers must compete against different options available to the public for when they are browsing the web.
While evolution in nature by definition brings change, we are willing to spend billions of dollars to protect the habitat of red tail frogs, the harvest mouse, spotted owls, and other endangered species. But when it comes to social institutions including newspapers, we just don’t seem to care.
I hope newspapers will be able to survive and remain relevant.
The world really needs to hear the voice of Dan Borenstein and his colleagues in the press to encourage government to be accountable and provide options to assist voters to make informed decisions on Election Day. Somehow a way must be found for us to retain their much needed expertise in our complicated society.