Losing the News

Newspapers are a dying industry. The big boys on Wall Street have already decided it. Newspaper ad revenues have stopped growing. The subscriber base, for most papers, is declining, and, what’s worse, it is aging. Most young people don’t read newspapers, and they never will.

It’s just a matter of time until we have to find something else to spread on the floor when we’re touching up a paint job. And who cares anyway? We live in a media universe with three 24-hour cable news channels, infinite talk radio, and a bazillion blogs. To many people, the idea of actually reading the work of a trained professional is quaint, boring, and vaguely insulting.

That’s the conventional wisdom. And it’s all true, except for the part about the “new media” environment offering adequate newspaper equivalents. No one would deny that newspapers are entering the final chapter of their history. The disagreement is about how long that chapter will be, and what comes next.

Newspaper readership has stopped growing, but newspapers are still very profitable businesses. In March, the Knight Ridder chain of 32 newspapers was sold by its parent company because it wasn’t making enough money. But the chain, which includes The Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Jose Mercury News, The Miami Herald, and the Akron Beacon Journal, is still returning an annual profit of 19 to 20 percent.

Investors motivated solely by the bottom line want to dump newspapers while they still hold some resale value. Under these circumstances, the new owners will continue the process of retaining the papers’ profitable elements (consumer services and suburban spin-offs, for instance) while stripping those more costly ones that don’t pay a return—such as salaries for professional reporters and expenses for controversial investigative projects.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2006
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