Sunday, August 19, 2007

Cause or Effect?

Cause or Effect?
By Peter Hutchinson
Bo-Sacks Cub Reporter

Books, schools, and newspapers are become too much neglected, and of consequence the rising generation will be great sufferers thereby if these necessary things, which tend to learning, are not more encouraged.

-Isaiah Thomas, publisher and printing historian, 1780
I was in the library the other day, and stumbled across some figures that set me thinking along broad and, as usual, unremunerative lines.

If you're as easily distracted by interesting media statistics as I am, here they come.

First data point: Between the end of World War II and 1980, the total number of daily newspapers in the United States remained virtually constant at around 1,750. Then in 1981 the number began to drop. By 1990, there were 1,611 American dailies. As of 2006 there were 1,437.

Second data point: Combined circulations of all the daily newspapers in the United States reached 62 million in the mid-1960s, then stopped growing. Beginning in 1990, circulations started to decline, down to 52.3 million in 2006.

Third data point: Advertising revenues in American dailies were $32.3 billion in 1990. They climbed to $48.7 billion in 2000, and then settled back to an estimated $45 billion or so in 2006.

In short, the newspaper business has experienced an 11 percent decline in the number of dailies, a 16 percent decline in circulation, and a 47 percent increase in advertising revenue since 1990. The consolidation and readership trends were identifiable well before 1990, however.

This all raises a kind of "Where's Waldo?" question, with the Internet playing the role of Waldo.

If reduction in the number of daily newspapers dates back to 1980 . . . if newspaper circulations stopped growing in the '60s . . . and if newspaper ad revenues are relatively steady despite consolidation and the challenge of maintaining readership . . . how much of the change is attributable to the Internet and how much to other factors? What exactly do the trends reflect?

We might observe, as Isaiah Thomas did in 1780, that newspapers "are become too much neglected"-that fewer papers are published today than in 1980 and that fewer people buy them. We can also observe that newspaper publishers have raised rates and CPMs more or less in the teeth of the audience trends.

But we can't really say that the Internet, which didn't have a major presence in American media until the mid-1990s, is the causative force behind any of these newspaper trends. For sure, it's been a compounding factor-given the Web's brisk growth in the past five or six years, it would be nuts to think otherwise. Nevertheless, the Internet didn't create conditions that date back to the '80s in the case of newspaper consolidation and to the '60s in the case of circulation decline.

It may not be a coincidence that the fall-off in the number of daily newspapers coincides with the widespread emergence of cable television in the 1980s, and that the circulation of daily newspapers peaked at a time when broadcast television was beginning to attain unassailable reach-as Life, Look, and the Saturday Evening Post learned the hard way when they tried to compete toe-to-toe with TV.

Apparently, when they're given a choice, Americans "like to watch," as Chauncey Gardner put it. In other words, we seem to spend increasingly more time in front of screens than we spend with paper. This isn't necessarily because we believe there's less intrinsic value in print. We may simply accept the news from whatever device we're already sitting in front of-TVs in our living rooms and bedrooms, and computers in our offices and laps.

Which is a shame, because reading a newspaper-even a bad one-provides a broader, more insightful, and deeper view of the news than anything a TV network, commercial radio station, or Web site is likely to serve up. It's a richer experience . . . but you have to make time for it.

Media compete with other options Americans have to fill their time, including hobbies, sports, games, recreation, education, worship, conversation, and stuff like work, eating, and sleep. Newspapers began to lose out when Americans started to budget their time differently . . . which is another way of saying that our priorities have shifted.
Ever since Sputnik, we've heard that Americans are growing less intelligent; that our schools are failing our children; that students in other countries know more math, science, geography, or whatnot; that important test scores are declining. We've responded by demanding that schools teach self-esteem, improve fitness, stay up to the minute with computer technology, build winning sports teams, keep kids off drugs, and leave no child behind in the process.

Unfortunately, we don't seem to hold schools accountable for the skills of thinking critically and communicating clearly, two qualities that characterize more involved, less passive media consumers.

There may be a link between Americans' choice of passive viewing over active reading and what we're emphasizing in our schools . . . which leads us back to the newspaper business. When television established itself as the medium of dominant reach, newspaper circulation stopped growing. As cable TV took off, the number of newspapers began to shrink. And as the personal computer became increasingly ubiquitous at work and at home, newspaper readership began to decline. It wasn't the Internet that caused these phenomena-they predate the Internet.

More and more people chose to spend their time in front of television sets-and the emergence of cable technology was the next logical step. More and more people chose to spend their time in front of computers-and the emergence of large-scale networking was the next logical step.

If the Internet is a consequence of the arrival of a computer on every desk, maybe the current state of the newspaper business is simply another consequence of the same event.

It's undeniable that the emergence of the Internet is a disruptive force in the newspaper business. But looking at the numbers and the dates, I can't help wondering whether the Net is a cause of publishers' troubles-or an effect.

I'll let the question dangle.

1 comment:

Printer said...

One of the large stumbling blocks that exist for those trying to transition (or deal with the transition - or explain the transition) from old media to new is that they isolate the context to media itself. Peter went a little broader bringing education - but this is truly a symptom of a fundemental revolution/evolution of our society.
A few generations prior to mine the patriarchs would bemoan the inability of their offspring to tend the farm, to have an intimate knowledge of the earth, of the cycles of nature. The industrial revolution left such knowledge and abilities to a select few or as a luxury/hobby. Similarly the digital revolution once completed will dramatically alter our lives.
Consider how the industrial revolution altered the agrarian norms of education, commerce, employment, relationships, family, global politics, communication, recreation, community interaction and so much more.
I would argue that the ink on paper version of printed word should be lauded for its resilience and ability to stay relevant for as long as it has. That does not mean it is worthy of holding that relevance forever.