Media Matters

Newspapers and Buggywhips

Somehow, they're still around.

By 1.31.08

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I grew up in a newspaper family. My grandfather ran a small town journal. My father headed up the advertising department of a chain of suburban weeklies and later published his own weekly paper in Florida. I have lived through the switchover from letterpress to offset printing, through the death of the evening daily (done in by TV news), through declining circulation, through price hikes in newsprint, and through the Internet.

I've set type, run printing presses, sold advertising, written stories, done page layouts, and edited sections. I cannot remember a time when newspapers weren't -- in some way -- going in the tank, failing, losing circulation, or losing money.

Yet we still have newspapers, and newspapers continue to be a force -- in the shaping of information and public opinion, and in the political life of the nation. They do so in spite of comically bad management, the near-total disregard of the usual high-profit demographic (the one that goes to the malls and the multiplexes), their sheer wrongheadedness in matters of public policy, and the alienation of their writers from the lives of everyday people.

IN ONE OF HIS books, humorist Dave Barry made fun of the usual way that newspapers try to turn around declining circulation. They look at their readership, they find out that younger people don't read the paper, and they decide to appeal to the readers they don't have -- or at least try. The paper's panjandrums determine to make their graphics kickier, to run more youth-oriented features, to cover entertainment, to make the product livelier and more fun.

Of course, the effort fails. The paper can't compete in the entertainment and fun market with TV, radio, and (for those of the younger set who read) specialty teen magazines. Instead, the newspaper prints less of what its dedicated readers want, and therefore loses more of its core audience. Five years later, says Barry, they do the same thing all over again.

Ironically, everybody used to read Dave Barry. If you could field a newspaper full of Dave Barrys, there would be no problem with the medium at all.

THE DECLINE AND FALL of newspapers mirrors a publishing failure in the past, that of general interest national magazines. Used to be everybody read Look, Life, Collier's, and the Saturday Evening Post. Those giants of publishing collapsed in the 1960s and 1970s, and we have not seen anything like them again.

But magazines did not disappear. In the language of marketing, the large, vertically oriented national journals gave way to dozens of horizontally marketed specialty magazines. The 1970s saw the flowering of the city magazine: New York, Texas Monthly, San Francisco, Washingtonian, and so forth.

At the same time, new magazines sprang up to address specific niche audiences. At the time, I worked for a publisher's representative (an ad sales agency) that took pride in having sold the first credit card ad to Ms.

To the surprise of most of us in the magazine biz, Ms. is still around, witness a recent flap over the magazine's refusal to carry an ad from Israel. Eleanor Smeal, Reagan-era head of NOW (and, I presume, still unable to pronounce the "d" in "administration" or "admit"), edits the book.

The fragmenting of the magazine world presaged the development of "narrowcasting" in cable television. Now, everyone can find his or her special interest reflected in at least part of a cable channel. Pool and poker could never have succeeded in national media without a proliferation of channels. And to pursue the parallel further, viewership of the big networks has fallen much the same way that newspaper readership has.

JUST LIKE NETWORK TV, newspapers will survive. So savvy an entrepreneur as Rupert Murdoch would not have bought the Wall Street Journal unless he was sure he could make it into a "big, big-titted hit" (to quote the Robert Duvall character in Network).

Murdoch, opines Ed Lasky in the American Thinker, will make his product a profitable market leader by synergizing with other elements of his media empire, and by infusing capital and talent into the newspaper.

Murdoch is a special case, aiming, as he does, to make the Journal the pre-eminent newspaper in the U.S. For publishers of more modest means and aims, the motto going forward will be synergy and specialization. Some combination of the Internet and print, some certain target audience, some canny design and organization, all will point the way forward for the newspapers of the future.

Some may look like professional journals, some may resemble the rabble-rousing shout-sheets of the Colonial era, some may take off from hobbyist enthusiasms. The big dailies like the New York Times and the Washington Post will survive. At least a few of the biggies have to, if for no other reason than to provide content and direction for broadcast newsies -- who can't do their own reading and research.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.