The problem with newspapers is their readers.
I went to a relatively well-known East Coast university in an urban environment with teachers from several Pulitzer-winning daily newspaper. There my journalism professors often insisted that the biggest problem facing newspapers was their audience.
Even in the early 1980s newspapers were seeing troubling signs. Many had been shuttered and what has become a 30-year trend of declining circulation was just beginning to be glimpsed.
These days lots of printed papers are on the brink. Slipping readership has turned into free-fall. Stagnant revenue has turned into advertising genocide. Such traditional newspaper strongholds as the classified pages have become virtually extinct. Other streams, like national display, are being diverted in massive amounts, mostly to online entities.
Who is to blame? Remarkably, many in the business still spout the old canard about readers. Americans are uneducated, they have forgotten how to read, they don’t want to know what is going on in their backyards — much less the rest of the world. These willfully ignorant, in-bred, idiots would rather watch television or just drift aimlessly illiterate through the world.
Millions were sunk into trying to teach Americans to read newspapers. Long-term efforts were launched to recruit youngsters to a life-long newspaper addiction. USA Today was begun with the concept that McNugget News would solve the problem. Supposition was that since more Americans watched insipid local TV news, then newspapers needed to ape that format with bright colors, big pictures, and stories that spun out bite-size bits of sugar rather harder to digest meat & potatoes.
Now we have the internet. While accelerating the decline of newspapers (and TV), it has also taught us print types quite a few things. First, people do read. Moreover, many many millions will read news. Consumption of information and news is, in fact, at an all time high. But subscription to newspapers is headed south at an accelerating rate.
What does that mean? First, that the average American probably isn’t nearly as stupid as newspaper people have insisted for decades. Second, many people are interested in the content found within the pages of newspapers. Third, an inevitable conclusion it would seem, if it isn’t the audience or the content, then the problem must be the package.
The issue, it seems is the broadcast nature of newspapers (and television networks). It is the one-size-fits-all mentality that believes if you drop a 10-pound package on someone’s doorstep they will pick through to find the 8-ounces they are after. That might be true if they didn’t think the other 9.5 pounds was crap they had to pay for, pick up soggy from their driveway, then tote weekly to the curb for recycling. Likewise, numerous newspaper web sites insist on forcing people to accept the same ratio of gems to junk, which has given tremendous legs to countless aggregation and private commentator sites.
For decades newspaper people have deluded themselves that the fickle, unlearned audience was the enemy. Now, despite mounting evidence, they cling to that delusion when they should be using their new-found self-knowledge to radically change how they do business.
For many newspapers it may be too late. Lack of innovation have led to the complete erosion of the advertising that almost single-handedly supported newspapers since time out of mind. Classifieds typically made up almost 60 percent of the revenue at many newspapers. Now it is gone and will never return.
Other advertising forms are migrating rapidly to the web, but not to newspaper sites. They are looking for targeted audience while most newspapers are still trying to export their broadcast model to the 21st-century printing press.
Signs are cropping up everywhere that proclaim the unthinkable to newspapers: The end is near. But many newspaper types still shake their heads in disbelief, blindly insist that somehow this will all turn around of its own accord, or cling to the myth that the blame can be placed on the overwhelmingly dumbness of the American public.
I have met the enemy and he is me.