The latest newspaper figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations are just jaw-dropping. Editor & Publisher reports that daily circulation for the six months ending March 31 was off 7 percent at 395 dailies, compared to the same period the year before.
But at some of the country’s most prominent papers, it’s much worse than that. The New York Post lost 20 percent — one in five people who was reading the Post a year ago is no longer reading it. Same goes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Miami Herald, Newark Star-Ledger and San Francisco Chronicle lost about 16 percent, or about one in six readers. The Houston Chronicle and New York Daily News about 14 percent. And on and on. Sunday numbers are similar.
The only news event in my lifetime that I can compare this to is the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late ’80s. I remember reading the stories coming out of Moscow in 1988 and ’89 as the USSR dismantled itself and thinking, “I’m watching the end of something I never dreamed would end in my lifetime — and I’m not that old!”
I’m saying that again, though the not-that-old part is quite a bit less true.
It’s not quite the same with newspapers. They’re not going to disappear completely. But right before our eyes, they’re collapsing as a central institution in our culture. It’s as if streetlights or shoes or sliced bread went away. You just never thought you’d see it, did you? Life would go on without those things, but it would be different. Something would replace them. Maybe better, maybe not.
Because I’m excited about the possibilities of what might replace newspaper’s role, I know it seems like I’m happy to see them go, that I’m dancing on their grave. I’m not. I’m sorry to see them fail like this. I’m sad and worried about the many people, some of whom I know, who have lost their jobs and the many more who have an ax over their heads.
And I’m sorry to see the decline. For all the brave new worldness of my first online job in 1996, I missed working at the newspaper. I missed being in a big-city newsroom with seasoned newspaper people, the most senior of whom had hired on after returning from World War II. I missed being a part of something with direct ties, a straight historical line, to the 19th century. I missed helping to produce a product that I could see people using as I rode the bus home from my shift.
That said, the utter failure rampant in newspapers couldn’t have happened to a more deserving industry. It didn’t have to happen, and it isn’t just happening because the Internet came along and changed everything. More on that next time.