The Future of Newspapers

THE first American newspaper did not have an auspicious beginning. Only one edition of Harris's Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick was published before the Crown shut down the three-page mini-tabloid 300 years ago.

But this Boston paper - a publication most press historians agree is America's first newspaper - was the beginning of what was to become one of the nation's largest and most lucrative industries.

Today, on the anniversary of the launch of Harris's paper on Sept. 25, 1690, the daily newspaper industry in the United States:

Generates advertising expenditures annually of $32 billion - $5 billion more than all television services combined.

Has a daily circulation of 62 million.

Employs 477,000 people.

Consumes 9.1 million tons of newsprint each year.

The nation's 1,626 dailies enjoy an average 20 percent profit before taxes - a profit margin undreamed of in most industries. Only 21 of the nation's 100 largest dailies have registered circulation decreases this year over last.

However, the newspaper industry's three-century journey from quill pens to computer terminals has not been smooth, and at no time has the survival of daily newspapers been more uncertain than it is in the last decade of the 20th century.

Even though more than 113 million American adults read a daily newspaper every weekday - up from 93.1 million in 1967 - a smaller percentage of adults each year say they are readers. Twenty-three years ago nearly three quarters of American adults said they read a newspaper every day. Now only about 1 in every 2 adults says he or she is a daily reader.

The number of newspapers in the US peaked at about 2,600 shortly after the turn of the century, when the average household subscribed to slightly more than two newspapers. Now the average household subscribes to between .6 and .7 daily newspapers.

``The penetration of all established media is declining. This is very much a concern,'' says Lee Stinnett, executive director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

``But Ford Motors, too, has declined in its household penetration since the early part of this century,'' Mr. Stinnett says. ``This doesn't mean that Ford is on the decline. You can't expect to always have the whole ball game. It's not possible to compare the mixed media environment of today with that of the turn of the century.''

Nevertheless, most newspaper analysts and those in the daily newspaper industry say they are concerned that for most of this century circulation gains have not kept pace with population increases.

``Fewer and fewer people see newspapers as a necessary part of their daily lives,'' says Dan Wackman, director of the University of Minnesota's school of journalism and mass communication.

Professor Wackman adds that in the past, most Americans picked up the newspaper reading habit by about age 30 - the time when they ``settled down,'' became established in a community, and began raising families. Today, though, people are settling down later - if at all. And ever-increasing numbers are not becoming daily newspaper readers.

``It worries me that a lot of people I know who should be loyal newspaper readers are not newspaper readers,'' Stinnett says. ``They have the jobs and educations that would make them good newspaper readers. They say time pressures are to blame.''

John Seigenthaler, publisher of the Nashville Tennessean, says that many women simply don't have the time to be daily newspaper readers because they are so busy balancing the roles of breadwinner, mother, and wife.

While most 19th-century immigrants to the US became newspaper readers to help them meet the challenges of a new world, today's immigrants and minorities generally are being socialized in other ways - especially by television.

Interest in public affairs wanes

``There has been tremendous growth of the Hispanic and black communities, and the lesser level of readership in these communities presents newspaper publishers with a tough problem,'' Wackman says.

Even as newspaper publishers incorporate ``colorful comic-book-like graphics, stories about the latest rock bands, and other youth-enticing gimmicks,'' as one Gannett editor put it, few young people seem to be taking the newspaper bait.

Most troubling of all is new research which indicates ``a turning off of the public in an interest in public affairs,'' says Robert Haiman, director of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla. ``I'm concerned by the data that show that an increasing number of Americans of all ages seems to be saying that they don't [care] about public affairs; that they have a cynical reaction to government and think that all politicians are crooks and scoundrels.''

Not only are daily newspapers failing to attract as many new readers as they would like, but media competition and the unstable economy are combining to make publishers search as never before for new means of generating revenue. Advertising accounts for about two-thirds of the revenue of most daily newspapers. But newspapers are no longer the only place or the best place for advertisers to put their message. Direct mail (i.e., ``junk mail'') and local giveaway ``shopper'' tabloids are giving daily newspapers tough competition.

``It's unlikely that the newspaper industry will be able to hold on to a substantial proportion of the advertising revenues. It's just unable to deliver this audience to advertisers as it once did,'' says Everette Dennis, executive director of the Gannett Center for Media Studies in New York.

According to Deborah Gersh, Washington editor for Editor & Publisher, a newspaper trade publication, ``There are a lot of problems publishers can't control. The economy, real estate, and the job market all affect newspaper advertising. If people aren't shopping, they don't have to turn to papers.''

To improve circulation figures and attract more advertising dollars, publishers are paying more attention to their product. ``There is greater concern today for ethical conduct than I've seen before in my 40 years in the business,'' says Mr. Seigenthaler, who is also editorial director for USA Today. ``There is greater concern about fairness and balance than ever before, and more serious discussions about the news agenda each day in newsroom meetings than ever before.''

Newspaper insiders and media observers agree that newspaper newsrooms are more diverse today.

``I see more women and more minorities in firing-line and decisionmaking roles on newspapers. This female presence serves to sensitize the white male editors over 40,'' Seigenthaler says.

David Halberstam, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the New York Times, says that this newsroom diversity is ``terrific.'' ``There's more debate on ethics and standards than ever before, and higher standards and better-educated young people than ever before,'' says the author of ``The Best and the Brightest'' and ``The Powers That Be.''

But while reporters and editors in American newsrooms may be becoming more representative of society as a whole in terms of race and sex, newspaper critics say the content of newspapers is becoming more similar: Newspapers owned by chains now account for 76 percent of total US circulation.

``Chain-owned papers like Gannett's are driven by the Dow Jones - this sense of bottom-line journalism, of collecting papers [as if] they were postage stamps to maximize profits,'' Mr. Halberstam says. ``The result is that such chain papers are less and less able to respond to the communities they represent.''

`The old ways aren't good enough'

Whether the publishers are independent or chain directed, however, they ``are realizing that the old ways of doing business are no longer good enough,'' Mr. Haiman says.

``I'm heartened to see lots of experimentation in graphics and design in reporting and writing techniques, in offering advertisers the slices and segments of the markets they need, in improved printing quality,'' Haiman says.

``Papers were in the past more specialized than they are now,'' says Stinnett. ``Some papers today have niches - papers like the New York Times, [The] Christian Science Monitor, and Wall Street Journal. They don't try to be everything to everybody. This may be the future of the industry.''!

Media analysts agree that to survive, newspapers must take more of an activist role in their communities than ever before.

``By 2000, we'll see readership in the major cities up. If we fight illiteracy and get involved in the communities, we'll see a turnaround in readership of newspapers. People will be forced to keep up with reading matter to keep up with a more complex society,'' says Bill Hilliard, editor of the Oregonian in Portland, Ore.

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