Is there a future for newspapers? The question has a certain urgency. Last year, six American dailies folded. Four others disappeared through mergers. Several dozen more reportedly experienced severe financial troubles - including the 131-year-old Globe-Democrat of St. Louis, whose future remains undecided as this column goes to press.
Why this ferment in the fourth estate? The obvious answer: television. A major study by the Newspaper Advertising Bureau, completed last summer, found that in 1971 some 77 percent of the nation's adults were daily exposed to newspapers, while only 48 percent watched television news. By 1982, the figures stood even, with 67 percent for each. That decline in reading parallels a sevenfold increase in network news programming, which (says Broadcasting magazine) grew from 12 hours, 35 minutes a week in 1970 to 88 hours, 11 minutes in 1982.
Is there cause for alarm? However jarring the numbers may be for newspaperdom, some highly respected observers think not.
One is Stephen R. Graubard, editor of Daedalus, the quarterly journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Referring to its fall 1982 issue titled ''Print Culture and Video Culture,'' he says that ''we really asked the question , 'Is it likely that in the near future you're going to see video driving out print from certain areas of life in the way that print once drove out script?' '' He says the conclusion his authors reached was that ''that's not a prospect.''
Another observer is Ruth Clark, one of the nation's premier newspaper analysts. In an interview at her office here, she took a similar position. ''If you should say to me, 'Are there going to be newspapers in the year 2001?' I would say, 'Yes.' '' She explains that ''there's nothing else I know that you can do two things at once conveniently with'' - pointing out that people can eat , ride trains, even talk on the phone while reading the paper.
But she sees some changes coming in several areas:
* Size. ''Newspapers are going to be smaller,'' she says, citing more acute competition for advertising and a trend among young people toward tabloids rather than broadsheets. She also notes that, ''as society becomes more mobile, people are more likely to carry newspapers rather than just read them in the house'' - and they won't want bulky papers.
* Point of delivery. ''The workplace is going to be a much bigger place for selling newspapers (than is the home),'' Mrs. Clark says. Reason: the difficulty of home delivery, and the fact that fewer people are at home.
* Frequency of reading. ''You're probably going to have fewer regular newspaper readers, people who read every day,'' she observes - although, she says, ''in the course of a week you will have more.'' One impetus to buy: a desire for more detail on a story that broke the night before on the network news.
Mrs. Clark also sees a swing back to hard news. Her explanation? ''When people have a sense that things are out of control,'' she surmises, ''there's a feeling that you'd better know what's happening.'' On the other hand, when readers are optimistic and feel they are ''living in a world without limits,'' they ''indulge'' themselves in ''things that are fun and entertaining and interesting and helpful and useful.''
Out of all this, what lessons emerge for newspapers? Two in particular come to mind. First, ''soft'' news and features must be so relevant that they become - whatever the current state of the world - indispensable. Second, responsible newspapers must avoid the self-serving tendency to insist every day that ''things are out of control'' - that the world is going to smash, and that (since you need hard news) you'd better buy our paper.
That's a particular danger for the print medium. For in nothing are newspapers more distinguished from television than in what Mrs. Clark calls the ''authority'' of the printed word. The fact is that when the public really needs to know in detail, it still turns to print - a phenomenon apparently acknowledged by network news shows, which are increasingly printing words on the screen to accompany the speaking voice.
As long as that authority stands - and it is built on centuries of tradition - print is not endangered by video. TV, instead, will simply challenge newspapers to do better what they can do best: explain in detail, delight with language, engage their readers' deepest interests and thoughts, and show by their very scope a world seen in all its variety, untrivialized and full of meaning.