The newspaper industry has been circling the toilet bowl for years. Conservatives love to claim that liberal bias explains the decline of newspaper circulation and ad revenue. Technophiles say that dead-tree Old Media is losing circulation because readers are going to the Web.
Whatever the merits of these explanations, they are not sufficient to account fully for the loss of readership. I have often argued, in response, that what we are actually seeing is a decline of reading, period. Pay attention the next time you’re on an airplane. Notice how relatively few of your fellow passengers — especially the younger ones — pass their time reading a newspaper, magazine or book. Rather, they’re watching the in-flight movie or listening to their IPods. People are reading less than they once did, a tendency especially pronounced among the young. As a result, there is less demand for the written word.
Evidence for my explanation can be seen in the recent news that several major magazine publishers are slashing their Web staffs. Conde Nast, for instance, let go 25 of their 30 online writers, while Fortune magazine cut a half-dozen Internet staffers. This computes neither with the “liberal bias” theory nor the “Good Riddance, Old Media” theory of readership decline. Fortune and the magazines in the Conde Nast stable — Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, etc. — aren’t losing readership because of politics, and their efforts to lure an online readership have not been cost-effective.
The Readership Crisis, as we might call it, is a demand-side problem. It is not caused by anything that publishers have done (or not done), and it cannot be solved by the facile assumption that losses in print readership will be compensated for by gains in online readership.