The American Newspaper Goes Bye-Bye
If you’re reading this in a daily newspaper, chances are that you haven’t been out much lately. You likely haven’t gotten pierced, tattooed, shoved around a mosh pit or submerged by student loans. To be precise, you’re probably about 50 years old. In 20 years, if this column is reprinted for some as-yet-unfathomable reason, the odds are that you’ll be about 70. In 30—well, that depends on advances in medical research.
The American big-city daily, a grand institution of the 20th century, seems about to go the way of the era itself, but no one’s paying much attention. Just last week, the Phoenix Gazette, an afternoon paper that has appeared for 116 years, printed its last issue, its demise apparently caused by an old ailment: Americans prefer their written news in the morning. After toiling all day for Disney, Microsoft, Nike or whoever owns what’s left of the country these days, they seemingly can’t absorb information any heavier than televised info nibblets. This trend extends even to San Francisco, where the objectively superior Examiner is inexplicably gasping for breath in its long battle with the clunky, 1950s-era Chronicle.
Even morning papers are suffering. Victimized by incompetent management, intransigent unions, unpredictable spikes in newsprint prices and the decline of big-ticket advertisers (such as department stores), even leviathans like the Los Angeles Times have been forced to reduce costs. In New York, a city of voracious readers who just a few decades ago took 26 daily papers to work with them on the subway, the well-written but pitifully designed New York Newsday discovered that it couldn’t compete successfully with the News, Post and Times—of which only the last could be reasonably called financially stable.
It doesn’t take a professional demographer to see that if the average age of newspaper readers is increasing as quickly as the passage of time, newspapers will soon be joining the history they’d rather be recording. The American Society of Newspaper Editors, however, needed a poll to tell them that 40,000,000 Generation Xers (Americans in their upper 20s and low 30s) don’t read the daily paper. This cluelessness is partially indicative of how the industry got into this mess in the first place.
Editors know that their younger would-be readers are turning instead to free-distribution alternative weeklies, and to the bottomless pit of information available on the Internet, for their media fix.
I see the trend among my own peers, most of whom are college-educated and have plenty of disposable income. They pick up the paper on Mondays for the sports statistics, on Fridays for the movie listings or Sundays for the classifieds. With the exception of those who make their livings by commenting on current events, I don’t know anyone who reads a daily every day. Everyone reads a weekly or two, and perhaps a news-oriented Web site like HotWired.
Besides price, the primary appeal of the weeklies is youth-based content. While typically devoid of breaking news—an obvious shortcoming of a weekly deadline—alternative weeklies offer non-news features that people under 40 can actually use. The typical daily, meanwhile, doesn’t look much different than it did a half-century ago: Many still have a society page!
Here in New York, for example, none of the three dailies offers coverage of new albums, concerts or books that would interest anyone under 50. The Times commonly refers to restaurants that cost $50 per person as “intermediate” and discusses opera, dance and musical theater as if those forms weren’t as dead as Cole Porter, the News considers Garth Brooks the cutting edge of popular music and the Post hasn’t heard of the Internet. So my peers turn to the Village Voice and NYPress, the two dominant free weeklies that appear on Wednesdays and offer extensive housing listings and cutting-edge cartoons. (Truth-in-reporting clause: My cartoons appear in neither publication, though I sometimes write for the Press.) The trouble is: What do you read the rest of the week?
The death of the dailies is a slow-motion national crisis. Association of Alternative Newsweeklies President Jeff vonKaenel writes in the trade journal Editor & Publisher that “the idea of having no more dailies scares me.” It should scare us all. The content produced by even a bulky bone-crusher like the LA Weekly doesn’t compare in scope or depth with the daily output of the Times. Americans need and deserve the comprehensive coverage and sense of community that only a big city paper can offer. More importantly, alternative media aren’t prepared to replace the dailies. Even with their modestly increasing circulations, local weeklies will never possess sufficient capital to hire scores of journalists and photographers to cover the planet and question the barrage of propaganda pumped out by government and big business.
The Internet isn’t the answer either. Few public spaces are wired with decent online equipment. A decent PC costs $2,500, plus $240 a year for a typical service provider. For the foreseeable future, the information turnpike will be open only to the nation’s richest 20 percent. Nothing is, or will be, as cheap, portable or comprehensive as the daily paper—or as widely-read. A country without a common source of information and arbiter of issues is on a sure path to balkanization and tribalism. While TV news is widely disseminated, the increasing number of cable-news channels and all-news networks only further reduces the commonality of the American experience—and thoughtful consideration of the issues is intrinsically opposed to television’s primary imperative: entertainment. We desperately need daily newspapers to prevent the wettest of all corporate wet dreams from coming true: An apolitical populace that never reads, and never thinks.
Ironically, the vast resources available to big dailies from their media conglomerate parent companies is also their strength. Their only hope for survival lays in rebuilding circulation by recapturing their former roles as watchdogs of democracy with populist, anti-corporate investigative reporting. Weeklies should do what they do best—act as a foil against the mainstream media and offer edgy features that others are too afraid to print.
Dailies also need to go where their future readers are, with comics more sophisticated than “Garfield” and music critics who can identify trip-hop and travel writers who stay at a youth hostel when they visit Paris, not the Ritz. Unless they start hiring twenty- and thirtysomething staffers, preferably without journalism degrees—people from a wide walk of life, with divergent experiences and uncomfortable backgrounds—only a few dailies will survive, and then as an overpriced specialty item for the élite.
Faux alternative weeklies run by dailies (like XS in Fort Lauderdale) are condescending, transparent ploys to exploit the Gen X marketplace with splashy graphics. The way to update the daily press is from the inside, not by ghettoizing “youth” coverage into a separate section of the paper. Many executives fret about losing their older subscribers, but face it—they’re all dying anyway.
Publishers and editors at the dailies have a responsibility to their country to provide a vibrant forum for public discourse, but if civic responsibility isn’t enough incentive to move into the 20th century in time for the 21st, consider this: The unemployment line is even more boring when you only have something to read once a week.
(Ted Rall, a syndicated cartoonist and freelance writer based in New York City, has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Pittsburgh Union-Tribune, San Francisco Examiner, Might magazine, Maximumrocknroll, P.O.V., the New York Press and numerous other publications.)
© 1997 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved