Broadsheet story

Losing ground: The Philadelphia Inquirer building.   | Photo Credit: Photo: AP


In the U.S., newspapers are becoming the dinosaurs of the media world.

IT feels more than a little strange to go from a country where new newspapers continue to enter the market to one where they are becoming the dinosaurs of the media world. Walk into a relative's home in Atlanta, and you discover that they don't take newspapers any more on weekdays. Ditto another relative in Maryland. Walk into a friend's home in New York and you find that they have stopped taking them altogether. Go around a graduate studies class in Philadelphia and ask how many read newspapers, and two out of 15 hands go up. True, the rest read headlines on the Net, but that still makes the bundle of paper at the doorstep a thing of the past. And a friend reports from the Columbia School of Journalism that in her class the number of grad students who said they read newspapers of the paper variety were zero. Even though they were available for free in the school. Imagine, she says hysterically, journalism students!

Changed circumstances

Which, of course, is doing something to newspaper establishments. At the Philadelphia Inquirer, which has had an illustrious past, a journalist waves at a long row of framed certificates on the wall and says "those are all the Pulitzers we don't win any more." The most recent one dates back to 1997. Last year the paper got new local owners, this year in January it sacked 71 people. Walk around its huge newsroom and you can spot the empty bays where journalists sat till a few weeks ago. Andy Maykuth, the journalist showing me around, was travelling to Afghanistan every year to report from there until a couple of years ago. He can still go to Afghanistan if he can find a Philadelphia angle to the story. The editor, Bill Marimow, reels off the reasons for the sorry state of affairs with the practised air of a man who has had to explain this quite often. There has been fragmentation of media. First TV took away advertising from newspapers, then it migrated to the Internet, now even podcasts are sponsored. Two, classified advertising has vanished with the advent of Net ventures like Craig's List. Sound familiar. Not so long ago, the editor of the Guardian in Britain was telling an audience in Delhi the same thing. Three, young Americans do not read newspapers. Period. Four, the cutbacks and reduced staff are making it very difficult to maintain quality. So readers are migrating to free newspapers and smaller suburban ones that have local news. Whether it is The Boston Globe, or the Baltimore Sun or the St. Louis Post and Despatch in Missouri, the quality regional papers are suffering. And their journalists are paying for it with their jobs. The Globe announced the closure of three foreign bureaus last month in an effort to minimise the 19 job cuts in its newsroom that have been mandated by its parent company. If students in universities in any part of the country read newspapers, they are likely to be reading The New York Times which takes care to woo them with subscriptions which cost 50 per cent of the regular price for a home delivered copy. Both The Times and The Wall Street Journal are increasingly being read nationwide, while the latter has paying readers on the Net as well. NYT did its cost cutting earlier and is now investing heavily in its digital edition.

TV news suffers too

The picture is not rosy for TV news either. The young are scarcely watching it any more. They prefer YouTube or the satirical Daily News Show on Comedy Central. The average age for TV news audiences is about sixty years. Which explains why so much advertising on American TV news is for remedies for cholesterol, diabetes, arthritis and heart disease. The Pew Research Foundation has a chart showing that the percentage of those reading newspapers dropped steadily every year in every age group between 1999 and 2005. But 69 per cent of those in the 65 plus age group are still reading newspapers whereas only 38 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds and 37 per cent of 24 to 34 year olds are. Vincent Price, a communications professor specialising in public opinion research, says that each new generation heading in consumes less news than the last one. And in all this turmoil newspapers are changing hands. The big chains like Gannet and Knight Ridder are selling less profitable newspapers, sometimes to local owners, sometimes to over-seventy billionaires who believe newspapers are read because they are still reading them. Jack Welch, formerly of General Electric, is reportedly trying to buy The Boston Globe, and Rupert Murdoch is apparently eyeing Newsday in Long Island. The decline may be terminal but America's broadsheet story is not quite over yet.