The American news business today finds itself trapped in a grim paradox. Financially, its prospects have never seemed bleaker. By some measures, the first quarter of 2009 was the worst ever for newspapers, with sales plunging $2.6 billion. Last year, circulation dropped on average by 4.6 percent on weekdays and 4.8 percent on Sundays. Earlier this year, Detroit’s two daily papers reduced home delivery to three days a week, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ended its print edition, and the Rocky Mountain News shut down altogether. This summer, The Boston Globe, which is losing more than $50 million a year, survived only by giving in to the draconian cutbacks demanded by its owner, the New York Times Company, while the Times itself, weighed down by the Globe, had to take out a $250 million loan from Carlos Slim Helú, Mexico’s richest man, at a junk-bond-level interest rate of 14 percent a year.
Yet amid all this gloom, statistics from the Internet suggest that interest in news has rarely been greater. According to one survey, Internet users in 2008 spent fifty-three minutes a week reading newspapers online, up from forty-one minutes in 2007. And the traffic at the top fifty news Web sites increased by 27 percent. While this growth cut across all age groups, the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism found, “it was fueled in particular by young people.” The MTV generation, known for its indifference to news, has given way to the Obama generation, which craves it, and for an industry long reconciled to the idea of its customers dying off, the reengagement of America’s young offers a rare ray of hope.
How could the financial fortunes of a $50 billion–plus industry decline so swiftly while its product remains so prized? The most immediate explanation is the collapse of what has long been the industry’s economic base: advertising. The traditional three staples of newspaper advertising—automotive, employment, and real estate—have all drastically declined, thanks to Craigslist, eBay, the travails of Detroit, and the consolidation of department stores (resulting in fewer retail ad pages). Meanwhile, the steady expansion of space on the Internet has caused online ad rates to crash, and these are not expected to recover even when the economy as a whole does.
The fall-off in ad revenues has been compounded by another phenomenon that newspaper executives would rather not discuss: their own greed. The relentless stress placed on acquisition and consolidation, which dominated the industry for decades, helped drain money out of newsrooms and into the pockets of shareholders. It also shifted the locus of decision-making from locally based citizens to distant corporate boards. Most harmful of all, efforts to build large media conglomerates have saddled newspaper companies with astounding levels of debt, much of it taken on to buy other newspaper companies. The Tribune Company has been in bankruptcy court since October, wrestling with the fallout from Sam Zell’s highly leveraged purchase of Times Mirror, while McClatchy Newspapers, having paid top dollar for the Knight Ridder chain, has…
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