Newspaper Industry

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At the same time that the debate over the structure and effects of the emerging global media industry is being influenced by the values that are most represented by newspapers, the newspaper industry is in what appears to be an almost certain and inevitable decline. Although there is substantial evidence to refute the charges that the industry is a "dinosaur" and in terminal danger, there is little doubt that the relative importance of the newspaper as an information conveyer, a public policy agenda-setter, and an economic power is declining.

Indications of decline have been around since the nineteenth century. Some people in the 1830s criticized the change that transformed newspapers from expensive business, political, or literary publications (limited to elite audiences) into inexpensive, advertising supported, mass media. Certainly, the pejorative terms "yellow journalism," "tabloids," and "jazz journalism" were part and parcel of the criticism that newspapers had lost their way in the 1890s and 1920s. Of course, these are qualitative judgments that neglect the power of newspapers' importance in cultural development, particularly in the pretelevision era. This power can be seen in the contributions that newspapers have made in the struggle to expand literacy, create a common language and national culture, argue for social and political reform, entertain the masses, encourage and implement technological change, and develop the most important of all journalistic values—the hallmarks of objectivity, fairness, the watchdog function, and civic responsibility.

A Future for Newspapers?

In addition to the qualitative criticisms that have long been made about the newspaper industry, discussions of the decline of the newspaper follows one of the most conventional wisdoms in media analysis. This is that the combination of digital and online communications and the World Wide Web component of the Internet, in particular, will become the conduit for virtually all forms of mediated communication that are delivered in homes and based on the specific desires of the user. Although there is not yet enough distance between diffusion, adoption, and use of new technology to be sure of this "wisdom," traditional mass communication vehicles such as the newspaper and broadcast television clearly are making efforts to adapt to changing circumstances. As is common, old media adapt to new media, but they do not disappear.

There will continue to be print newspapers in the future. They will exist along with many other forms of digital media that are brought about by technological diffusion and economic policy decisions. The qualities of ease of use, reasonable cost, and utility will still be relevant for the preservation of newspapers in the digital online era.

However, the ongoing redefinition of media communication cannot be reversed, and it will have enormous effect on all aspects of the newspaper industry. The brand name of many newspapers will be used in virtually every media form. The websites and the cobranding arrangements with local television and radio, which are becoming ubiquitous, will continue and expand. As is increasingly clear, the newspapers that prosper will increasingly generate revenues as electronic conduits or portals for information and entertainment in various forms. An increasing number of people will choose to have their "newspaper" delivered electronically, and many of these people will print out a hard copy. Journalists will see their work presented in various formats and will increasingly be trained to be writers and multimedia producers. A considerable number of "users" (a more accurate term than "readers") will choose to design and edit their newspapers, individually emphasizing only the content that they choose. Advertising will be targeted according to these choices, as well as the demographics and psychographics of the audience.

Traditional versions of newspapers that offer a little something for everyone will become more expensive, as the consumer has to pay for the privilege of being in a niche group that depends on or prefers a carefully edited product with a diversity of information. As is the case with magazines, careful testing of consumer cost and advertising mix will become more important for newspapers as they seek to maximize desirable audiences for sale to advertisers and to eliminate undesirable audiences (i.e., those who have little or no value for advertisers).

As for content, print newspapers are likely to become increasingly local in orientation in a continuation and enhancement of the trends toward suburban metropolitan zone newspapers and such movements as civic journalism. National news is likely to get minimal attention, as it will be so readily available from other media sources. However, analysis and interpretation of all types of news are likely to take up even more space, as will local sports, entertainment, and lifestyle information. Moreover, more and more material is likely to be bylined by highly paid and heavily promoted "stars" who can help the print newspaper stand out as an important "brand" among a glut of competitors for the attention of consumers.

These relatively mild predictions are based on the acceleration of existing trends, many of which came into existence with the advent of television. As is the case with almost all media, as the newspaper has peaked in terms of influence and faced the challenge of new competition, it has had to refocus and, to some degree, specialize. Although this seems economically necessary, too much or the wrong type of specialization has a high cost for newspapers—the loss of identity as a mainstream medium.

What Is the Newspaper Market?

Tables 1 and 2 provide snapshots of the status of the U.S. newspaper industry. In many respects, the industry is financially healthy and culturally influential. Despite the evident decline in the percentage of Americans who read a daily newspaper, more than half continue to read a daily. Although the number of daily newspapers is decreasing, the ones that remain are, in most cases, left in a dominant if not monopoly position within their markets. Because of their ability to offer a blend of classified, local, and national advertising of various types at a reasonable cost, daily newspapers still generate about 25 percent of all U.S. advertising revenues.

Two of the major trends in newspapers since the 1950s have been the lessening of competition and consolidation of ownership. Newspaper chains own about 80 percent of all daily newspapers, with the largest chains, in terms of total circulation (Gannett, Knight-Ridder, Newhouse, Times Mirror, New York Times), also typically having ownership interests in other media, including various forms of television and online ventures. Perhaps instructive of the future of media consolidation is that the largest newspaper group in assets as of the mid-1990s was Capital Cities/ABC (a part of the Walt Disney Company), which generates most of its income from non-newspaper media and entertainment activities.

Here, as in most accounts of newspapers, the large metropolitan daily newspaper is given the most attention for the obvious reasons of its economic position and social influence. However, there are other forms of print newspapers that

Trends for Daily and Sunday Newspapers
YearNumber of DailiesNumber of SundaysDaily Circulation (in millions)Sunday Circulation Circulation (in millions)
1 Preliminary data.
SOURCE:Newspaper Association of America (1999c).
Daily Newspaper Readership Trends by Percentage
YearMenWomenAll Adults
19992, 356.9
20002, 355.1
1 Combined data for 1974 and 1975.
2 Top 50 market data only.
3 Fall quarter only.
SOURCES: Hernandez (2000); Newspaper Association of America (1999a, 1999b).

should be considered in any overview. Robert Picard and Jeffrey Brody (1997, pp. 8-10), for example, define nine "general categories" of newspapers, with an example of each:

  1. international and national daily newspapers (USA Today),
  2. metropolitan and/or regional daily newspapers (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette),
  3. local daily newspapers (North Hills News Record),
  4. nondaily general audience newspapers (small towns and alternative city newspapers such as In Pittsburgh),
  5. minority newspapers (New Pittsburgh Courier),
  6. newspapers that are published in secondary languages (El Diario-La Prensa),
  7. religious newspapers (National Catholic Register),
  8. military newspapers (on most major bases), and
  9. other specialty newspapers (Baseball Weekly).

Not included here are the free shoppers that increasingly have suburban or neighborhood news in addition to many local advertisements. These categories are helpful in reminding people that a newspaper can be many things and has strengths of convenience and cost that will ensure a future for print. They also remind people, by their continuing success, that specialization works in print as it did in motion pictures, radio, and, increasingly, television. As the "mass" in mass communication continues to be redefined as a mass of people who are making use of various specialized or niche media, this will become more and more important.

The various types of newspapers are also commonly used by media economists, such as Picard and Brody (1997) and Stephen Lacy and Todd Simon (1993), to demonstrate via the "umbrella model" that even with fewer than 2 percent of communities having competing newspapers, there is a competitive market for newspapers because most Americans have easy local access to several different types of newspapers.

The U.S. newspaper industry employs about 500,000 people who work in editorial, advertising, circulation, production, or other types of business operations. Technology and the consolidation of operations, along with a decrease in the number of newspapers, leads to a relatively gloomy U.S. government assessment of employment prospects, particularly in the newspaper reporter workplace. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (1999), employment in this area is expected to continue to decline for print newspapers. However, the bureau concludes that "online newspapers and magazines should continue to grow very fast and create numerous job opportunities."

Eras and Adaptations

The U.S. newspaper industry faces major issues about its place in the American economy and in the hearts and minds of the public. This is not the first time that this has occurred. The first "end of an era" occurred with the corresponding development of broadcast news and the suburbanization of the United States, which eventually relegated the newspaper to a secondary medium for an ever-increasing number of people. Tables 1 and 2 show that the trend is continuing with a shrinking, albeit still substantial, percentage of the population being regular newspaper readers and an overall circulation that is beginning to slip noticeably. Another particularly ominous concern for newspapers is that younger people do not read newspapers regularly, and they show little inclination to become regular readers as they age. In a report prepared for the Newspaper Association of America, Stu Tolley (1999) presents data that suggests that if this trend is not reversed, the audience for daily newspapers will decline to zero in the latter part of the twenty-first century.

Despite their decline as the primary news source since the 1950s, newspapers were able to adapt well to a changing media environment by using such tactics as increasing industry consolidation and group ownership, switching to mainly morning publication cycles, getting the government to legalize joint operating agreements (JOAs), offering more specialized content, increasing the amount of analytic and opinion pieces, and upgrading the graphics and visuals. In addition, the newspaper industry was able to maintain a major, if no longer dominant, position as a national cultural power through its continuing ability to set the agenda for issues by helping to define what was newsworthy and by setting the standards of what constituted proper journalistic practice. These standards have long been the foundation of journalism education in the United States, and they follow students into various media positions. In addition, many radio and television stations continue to rely on major newspapers to set the agenda for what they are going to cover.

A look at the data in Tables 1 and 2 demonstrates that as long as broadcasting was the primary competition for news consumers, the newspaper industry did extremely well economically and in reaching the masses. Despite the many critics who believe the marketing orientation of the newspaper business has compromised its ability to serve the public properly, this type of orientation has been essential in keeping the industry economically strong in the face of considerable adaptation and change.

The newspaper industry, and for that matter the entire media industry, in at the end of another era. The twin "Cs" of economic c onsolidation and technological c onvergence are changing the traditional role and nature of media in ways that are difficult to predict. However, one thing that is very clear is that the dividing lines between once disparate media, such as the telephone and the television or the television and the newspaper, are fading in importance to users, media owners, and policymakers. The end result is that the newspaper increasingly is becoming just another platform for a rapidly developing global media oligopoly, losing much of its distinctiveness.

Another obvious result of consolidation and convergence is the increasing number of information and entertainment options that are available to the average person. The number of options dwarfs the competition that newspapers have previously had from electronic media. To stand out and maintain distinctiveness as a major medium in such a crowded landscape is the major issue for the newspaper industry.

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, newspapers ushered in the era of mass communication and relatively democratic access to news and information. Their low cost, easy availability (at least in urban areas), and mass appeal content, all spurred by the growth of industrial capitalism and the accompanying rise of mass advertising, made the newspaper a powerful instrument for the setting of civic agendas from the municipal to the federal level. Newspapers were often involved in campaigns against perceived social ills and for social improvements. They were powerful enough forces in American life to contribute to the development of local civic identities, the leveling of cultural differences, and the development of a distinctive American culture. They have reflected and sometimes helped to create local values, and, in many cases, they themselves became important business and cultural institutions within their market areas. At the same time, standardization of industry operations and techniques, the development of wire services and syndicates, the corporatization of ownership, and the national expansion of advertising helped to develop a set of national media values that are associated with journalism.

Despite the relatively successful adaptation of newspapers to broadcasting, the pretelevision era is likely to be regarded as the heyday of newspapers. This was the time when the newspaper was the news for the vast majority of the population. It was a time of enormous political and economic power for the industry, as politicians and businessmen sought favor and support from major newspapers in a way that has since become more common for television. It was also a time in which the industry codified standards of journalistic practice in professional codes, trade associations, and higher education. The newspaper industry will never again be as prominent in the United States or in the world. There are several interrelated reasons for this assertion.

First, broadcasting and especially television took away the immediacy of the newspaper, one of its fundamental reasons for being. Ever since the 1950s and 1960s, Americans have looked more to television as their primary news source. The Internet and other newer communication technologies expand the competition to an unparalleled degree.

Second, television in its various forms (i.e., local, national, syndicated, broadcast, cable, satellite) has consistently chipped away at the leading position that newspapers hold in the generation of advertising revenue. Although daily newspapers continue to generate more advertising revenue than any other medium, their percentage continues to decline as new forms of television and the Internet are increasingly able to compete for the lucrative local display and classified advertising that has long been the major strength of print newspapers.

Third, the newspaper industry is beginning to see the firewall between editorial and advertising dissipate, as marketing becomes a primary mantra for the industry and newspapers work to service better their primary customer—the advertiser. Although this is also true of other media, the cost is much higher for newspapers because of their position as the originator and keeper of such values as objectivity and the watchdog function. In allowing the erosion of the firewall, the newspaper becomes just another medium, just another platform for the display of commercial messages, just another media commodity.

Fourth, the Internet is a decidedly mixed blessing for the industry. It certainly does provide a critically important new distribution system and potential revenue center. Of course, this would not be all that important if the Internet did not provide the outlet for all sorts of new competition for the newspaper. There are two particularly important effects that the Internet has on newspapers. First, it is rapidly developing the capacity to serve local display and classified advertisers at reasonable cost with increasing market penetration in a visual and interactive fashion that is impossible for print to replicate. Second, while many newspapers have been early adopters of Internet publishing, they are forced to compete in a more direct way with the many other content providers that do not have "roots" in the newspaper business. Although the brand equity of many newspapers is substantial and certainly lends credibility to Internet efforts, the World Wide Web makes other providers functionally equivalent for many readers and consumers. For example, CNN's web-site looks and reads very much like many newspaper-operated sites. The distinctiveness of the newspaper as a print medium and the cultural cache that it carries (e.g., literate, thorough, for the thinking person) versus television and its traditional cultural baggage (e.g., headline service, shallow, emotional appeals) is being obliterated by the Internet.

Fifth, the newspaper industry faces a continuing dilemma in terms of purpose and function. The trend of specialization in media, which was set in motion with the introduction of commercial television, continues to accelerate as advances in digital technology and the Internet provide a seemingly ever-increasing number of specialized and navigable "channels" for many Americans. Although the newspaper industry has reacted to this with increased internal specialization for zoned editions, the newspaper remains so amorphous (with "a little something for everyone") that it continues to decline in relevance for a public that is increasingly offered more specialized content in virtually all competing media. However, the traditional daily newspaper is constrained in making more radical changes toward unit specialization (i.e., all content on a similar subject or appealing to a specific audience target). To move in this direction would seriously risk both its financial well-being (by alienating traditional advertisers and readers) and its cultural capital (by compromising its position as a relatively objective "voice" of the community). This dilemma has led to much soul searching within the newspaper industry as it struggles to maintain its position. At the same time, there is little doubt that the biggest success stories in the industry are related to those newspapers that serve smaller and, at least geographically, specialized audience segments.

The Newspaper Legacy

The importance of print newspapers is fading, but they will remain influential far into the future. This will be true even as the distribution system evolves into some form of online digital transfer for an increasing number of users. The hope is that this will also be true even as the newspaper becomes more commodified as a constituent part of a complex and increasingly global multimedia entertainment and information industry. Print is too convenient a form to disappear completely, and newspapers have built up such strong brand equity that they will be able to extend their brand in both print and electronic forms. In addition, the vitality of specialized print publications will continue to provide much traditional reading material to the public.

Perhaps more important, the values and traditions of civic responsibility that were developed primarily in and by the U.S. newspaper business are infused to one degree or another in all American mass media (and for that matter, much international media), they form the basis of the educational system for newspaper workers, and they often frame the debates about the proper function and structure of all communication industries. Included here would be the tension between economics and service or, more specifically, between the seeking of ever-higher profits and the role of public forum that newspapers have, at times, provided. Unlike the electronic media, with its public-interest roots in transportation law and policy and the concomitant emphasis on licensing and regulatory oversight, the U.S. newspaper has a direct link to the U.S. Constitution and the philosophers who influenced it. As explained by Lacy and Simon (1993), this is one of the keys to the intellectual market of newspapers. In fact, without the newspaper and its print "brethren" (e.g., one-sheets, pamphlets, books), many of the ideas that influenced the Constitution would not have been disseminated as powerfully and as rapidly as they were. The newspaper in the United States has, with few exceptions, been the commercial media form with the greatest influence in promoting relatively free and democratic speech.

This legacy is more important than ever in a time when complex shifts are occurring in the dynamics and definition of mass communication and media. Major media firms increasingly have holdings in various media forms and in various parts of the world. As television and online communications become one, and as newspaper content becomes available to new audiences through the Internet and other technology, differences between media—in terms of form, mission, and national orientation—have the potential to narrow and be subsumed by purely revenue-generation goals.

Using the values and traditions of U.S. newspapers to frame the argument is perhaps the best and only way for interested citizens and media professionals to work toward the goal that the newspaper first promised and that newer communication technologies have the potential to deliver. These values and traditions include the insistence on fairness in coverage, public participation in the information forum, and limits on government or corporate power over media. The challenges obviously are staggering. Much of media history is riddled with promises that were either unfulfilled or subverted. However, to give up or not even try is more than acquiescence. It is a subversion of the original ideals of the U.S. newspaper industry.

See also: Internet and the World Wide Web; Journalism, History of; Journalism, Professionalization of; Newspaper Industry, Careers in; Newspaper Industry, History of; News Production Theories; Technology, Adoption and diffusion of.


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