Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Read all about it: Newspapers are on life support. In case you have not noticed, your daily newspaper, wherever you are in the world, has shrunk in physical size, in editorial content and especially in the size and number of display ads. The proverbial IV drip that is sustaining all the news that’s fit to print has much to do with our inability to let go. We love our newspaper. We drink coffee while we read it. We tear out cool stories and stick them on the fridge. We feel some kind of inexplicable kinship with our favorite columnists. We feel a sense of ownership of the familiar front page layouts, the banner headlines, the feel and smell of the newsprint. We just can’t quit our daily newspaper fix.

Unfortunately, we may have to. As usual, the numbers tell the story: Average weekday circulation at 507 papers was about 38.2 million copies for the period ended September 30, 2008, according to the U.S. Audit Bureau of Circulations. That was a 4.6 percent drop from the same six-month period a year ago. From September 2006 to 2007, the drop was only 2.6 percent. Sunday circulation, which was measured at 571 papers, fell 4.9 percent to about 43.6 million copies. That drop also accelerated -- last year's Sunday decline was 3.5 percent.

As if the numbers were not doomy and gloomy enough, last week we found out that the Christian Science Monitor will stop printing and move online, after more than a century in print. And get this: There is even a web site devoted to the obsolescence of newspapers. Aptly named newspaperdeathwatch.com, it seems to never run out of fresh material about sagging sales, layoffs and the ongoing triumph of online over traditional journalism. If all that were not enough evidence of the decline of daily print publications, get this: One of our absolute favorite alternative weeklys, Washington, D.C.'s City Paper recently filed for "Journalism Bankruptcy." The official papers filed on October 10 in D.C.'s bankruptcy court state, "The gradual rise of the Internet as a conduit for all the sorts of information provided by City Paper—from classified ads through news—has buffeted the paper’s business, as well as that of other print publications. City Paper has suffered through a typical onslaught of industry downtrends, including declines in circulation, display advertising revenues, and classified advertising revenues."

You may not realize it, but you’ve gone digital. (Hey, you’re reading Greenberg Rants, right?) Everybody in the industry attempts to pinpoint the exact moment newspapers became anemic. Me? I place it smack dab in 1998. That was the year Matt Drudge (right), the “anti-journalist” to many traditional newspaper scribes, broke the Monica Lewinsky story wide open. It was Drudge who scooped everybody from the New York Times to the Washington Post to Newsweek Magazine. Drudge runs a high-traffic site called The Drudge Report. Here are the words that forever changed the newspaper business:
"At the last minute, at 6 p.m. on Saturday evening, NEWSWEEK magazine killed a story that was destined to shake official Washington to its foundation: A White House intern carried on a sexual affair with the President of the United States!
The DRUDGE REPORT has learned that reporter Michael Isikoff developed the story of his career, only to have it spiked by top NEWSWEEK suits hours before publication. A young woman, 23, sexually involved with the love of her life, the President of the United States, since she was a 21-year-old intern at the White House. She was a frequent visitor to a small study just off the Oval Office where she claims to have indulged the president's sexual preference. Reports of the relationship spread in White House quarters and she was moved to a job at the Pentagon, where she worked until last month.
The young intern wrote long love letters to President Clinton, which she delivered through a delivery service. She was a frequent visitor at the White House after midnight, where she checked in the WAVE logs as visiting a secretary named Betty Curry, 57.The DRUDGE REPORT has learned that tapes of intimate phone conversations exist.
The minute Matt Drudge scooped Newsweek, I believe all bets were off. The future of traditional print journalism was set in stone. Fast forward to January 8, 2006. That was the day none other than Ms. Oprah Winfrey had egg on her face after it was revealed that James Frey, an author she promoted on her show, had fudged some facts in his bestseller, “A Million Little Pieces.” Turns out much of Frey’s non-fiction narrative was made up. And who revealed that to America? TheSmokingGun.com, a web site devoted to increasingly juicy revelations that mainstream media seems to either miss completely or wait way too long to report. The same site first reported that that a finalist in Fox's "Joe Millionaire" had appeared in fetish and bondage movies. Even the Enquirer and People missed that one. Oh, by the way, did you know that the complete 16,659-page FBI file on Dr. Martin Luther King is now online? Yes, and you will find it via The Memory Hole, a web site dedicated to preserving and disseminating documents in danger of being lost, is hard to find, or not widely known. You will not, however, find it in your daily newspaper.

Will newspapers survive? I say they must survive, because they are an integral part of our culture. It is not a scientific projection, but here’s my best guess: I believe newspapers will move largely online, but will continue to publish on paper, although not as frequently. Expect online editions of your daily paper, and weekly or bi-weekly print editions which build on the online content. For example, perhaps your online version will offer the news angle of a story, while the print version offers a more magazine-like feature angle. Online: “McCain returns to the Senate.” Print: “John and Cindy McCain: Life after a two–year campaign.

Newspapers will also survive by “scooping” themselves online. The immediacy of digital journalism is the beauty of the technology. Why wait until the morning paper comes out to reveal what happened in the middle of the night? Publish it online as soon as it happens, and then decide if it is worth expanding upon in the weekly print version.

As I said, newspapers are part of us. Remember Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday?” What about the Daily Planet where Clark Kent worked? Citizen Kane? Paperboys proclaiming, “Read all about it.” Morning coffee without the editorial page? Perish the thought. Newspapers are us.

1 comment:

Joan Eisenstodt said...

I'm totally freaking out about newspapers going away .. they are my lifeline. Sure I like blogs (esp. this one) and reading NYT and WSJ and all kinds of stuff on line but it's not the same. I want to hold the paper .. take it w/ me to the john, on the plane, to bed. This is one of America's greatest tragedies .. other than the Bush/Cheney years.