If you were a newspaper subscriber last year, there’s a 10 percent chance you aren’t this year.
That’s because paid circulation of daily newspapers nationally fell more than 10 percent from a year ago. Some papers suffered truly horrendous daily circulation losses: the San Francisco Chronicle (down 25.8 percent), The Boston Globe (down 18.5 percent) and The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger (down 22.2 percent), reports Rick Edmonds on his Poynter Biz Blog. USA Today, hit by a slump in travel, fell nearly 18 percent. The circulation of 400 daily newspapers has fallen to only 30 million readers.
This hemorrhaging of circulation — the worst ever — will have serious consequences. Expect newspaper staffs, already slashed below the minimum necessary to adequately cover their turf, to be cut further. Expect more shallow, one-source stories. Expect more stories laden with anonymous sources because the poorly paid, younger, inexperienced reporters left on staff won’t have the skill to persuade sources to speak on the record. Expect more wire-service content because local stories won’t get done. Expect corporate newspaper management to continue to stall on finding a business model that enhances the public-service mission of journalism. Expect more style than substance.
Just expect less of what good newspapers used to be. The nation’s newspapers, the constitutionally anointed watchdogs and adversaries of government, can no longer be considered as successful in those roles as they used to be.
Mr. Edmonds lists several reasons for this continuing, massive loss of paid circulation. From his Biz Blog:
- Readers continue to migrate from print to the Internet — sometimes to newspapers’ own sites, sometimes to aggregators.
- Papers, metros especially, are voluntarily trimming circulation to remote areas because they are more expensive to serve and less valuable to advertisers.
- So-called “start pressure,” the selling of new subscriptions to replace lost ones, has taken a hit from cost-cutting.
- Decisions at many papers to aggressively increase subscription and single copy prices has resulted in fewer copies being sold, though circulation revenue has increased.
- This period is the first to include the full impact of the recession, in which some consumers are dropping subscriptions and others buying the paper less frequently.
- Smaller news staffs and news space make the product weaker and less appealing.
In 2008, newspapers shed more than 9,000 jobs. This year, so far, newspapers have cut more than 14,100 jobs. How can such cuts in reporting and other capabilities not have serious social, cultural, and political consequences? Yes, various foundation-funded, non-profit, experimental approaches to independent newsgathering have emerged. Consider the well-intended efforts of ProPublica and MinnPost. (Read Alan Mutter’s excellent two-part take on non-profit news startups.)
Too little, perhaps too late. American journalism sprouted from local printers who became family owners of newspapers — local newspapers. The Founders intended the First Amendment to protect those who owned presses and printed newspapers from interference by the government. But the utility of the First Amendment has been eroded by overt corporate mismanagement and malpractice far more than covert government malfeasance.
At the local level, newspaper staffs have been reduced far below necessary levels for competent, comprehensive coverage of local government. Government didn’t cause this — but it now benefits from the ability to operate with far less inspection by journalists.
No non-profit efforts on the horizon would make up for the quantitative loss of experienced reporters nationally. Fewer reporters means fewer watchdogs.
How is that not costly to a democracy?