This news, about industry-wide circulation slides in newspaper circulation, comes as no surprise to anyone who’s worked in the business lately. You can debate the “why” for days and days, although it’s rather neatly summed up here:
The losses come at a time when Americans have many news outlets that didn’t exist 20 years ago, including cable-television news channels and Internet sites, as well as email and cellphone alerts. Many newspapers have substantial and free online sites offering much of what is in the printed paper. These sites might not hurt readership overall, but they can erode a newspaper’s paying audience.
At the same time, many newspapers have undercut the print product itself, trimming staff and coverage. They also have failed to figure out how to attract younger readers to their pages.
A little of this, a little of that, in other words. More competition leads to lower profits, which leads, at papers all over the country, to hiring freezes, staff cutbacks, shrinking coverage areas (known as “concentrating on our core audience” in staff meetings), a thinner, tighter newshole and all sorts of related flanking maneuvers, all of which lead to, anyone? Yes: More circulation declines.
Professionalism suggests I shouldn’t discuss newspapers with which I have first-hand experience, but the paragraph above pretty much sums it up. I had occasion to look in some microfilm at my alma mater not long before I left — I was looking for a story that appeared around the time I arrived at the paper, in the mid-’80s. How I remember those halcyon days, the paper with a fresh Pulitzer and staff out the yin-yang. We even had a full complement of regional stringers, and oh how we loved to hoot over their dispatches. The guy in Berne wrote his on an antique typewriter, and on the envelope, in his elderly hand, he always added a penciled exhortation to the postman: RUSH. The woman in LaGrange County called in news of a barn fire as though it were the towering inferno. And so on.
It so happened there was a LaGrange dispatch on the Metro/State front that day, about a pack of feral dogs bothering farmers in the area, and the posse that had been assembled to bring them to justice. And you know what? I read that sucker. Six paragraphs start to finish, about a problem that wasn’t mine and never would be, and somehow there was more of a pulse on that page than there was in the elegantly designed incarnations that followed. This might be misplaced nostalgia talking, but I don’t think so. The fact is, a larger staff, spread widely over a multi-county area, will find more news than a smaller one concentrated in one metropolitan area.
Anyway, I like the idea that no one said, “Feral dogs? We overwhelmingly serve an urban population that does not suffer from depradations of its henhouses by such animals. Spike it.” Part of the thrill of reading a general-interest publication is finding out about things you didn’t think you wanted to know about.
That’s what I’ll miss most about the news outlets of the future — the surprises. When our online product first debuted, there was a little ‘bot service called Newshound, which went out and fetched you a made-to-order paper. You told Newshound you were interested in Chicago Cubs baseball, the city governments of Phoenix and Cleveland, the music of Warren Zevon and tips on how to improve your golf swing, and Newshound goes out and assembles it for you. The You News. Motto: “No feral dog packs anywhere.”
Also, “No surprises.” And how much fun is that?