Americans ought to be paying attention to what is happening to the nation’s newspapers. Fewer people, especially young ones, are buying and reading them. In the last six months, 770 newspapers lost an average of 2.8 percent of their readers.
Newspapers don’t make much money just for selling newspapers. Their main income comes from stores and businesses buying advertisements. But when they hear that fewer people are reading the paper, they find other ways of advertising. That’s why more than 80 newspapers (mostly afternoon papers) have quit in the last 10 years. Ten more have folded in the last three months.
Most people understand that their best newspaper is the one owned by people who live in their area. But if hometown publishers aren’t making enough money to survive, they are apt to sell their paper to a far-away firm that can operate it because the firm is taking in much money from its other newspapers that are the only ones in town.
Journalists like me learned that when the Arkansas Gazette owners sold the paper to the nation’s biggest chain, Gannett, which knew absolutely nothing about Little Rock and never tried to learn. After operating it five years and losing money, Gannett sold the Gazette to WEHCO, owner of the Arkansas Democrat, a former afternoon newspaper, that had switched to morning, and other Arkansas newspapers. WEHCO dumped the Gazette, except in its name. Like dozens of other cities, Little Rock no longer has an afternoon daily paper.
Ever since television came along, and then the Internet, many people have turned to them for their news. For free they can find out what is going on in the world and Washington, but television companies and radio stations can’t afford to hire many experienced journalists to tell much about what is happening in your town other than murders, fires, auto accidents, the weather and football games.
Only newspapers can tell you: Births and deaths ... Where and when to shop... Weddings and divorces ... Classified sections to sell and buy anything ... What people are doing at the state Capitol, the county offices, city hall, fire and police departments and the big organizations and clubs. Also, newspapers will give you columns and editorials that will tell you what the politicians, companies and organizations are doing in your town, bad or good.
Apparently many Arkansans still want to read newspapers. Last week the Audit Bureau of Circulation reported that for the third consecutive year more than 65.55 percent of people in Little Rock’s city zone bought the Sunday Democrat-Gazette, the best percentage of any Sunday newspaper in the country. But even the Democrat-Gazette sold 1 percent fewer Sunday papers than last year and 0.4 percent fewer daily papers.
In the last six months, the Los Angeles Times lost 8 percent of its daily circulation, 6 percent on Sunday. The Boston Globe, lost 6.7 percent daily, 10 percent on Sunday. Other losers were Newsday, 5 percent, Houston Chronicle, 3.7 percent, New York Times, 3.5 percent and Washington Post, 3.3 percent.
The Newspaper Association of America made a survey to find the ages of people who quit reading newspapers from 1998 to 2005. The most who stopped reading newspapers were people in the 35-to-54 age group, which dropped from 60.9 percent newspaper readers in 1998 to 51.7 percent in 2005. Next were ages 25 to 34, who went from 45.9 to 36.8. In eight years, the percentage of people in the 18 to 24-year age group went from 43.5 percent to 38.4 percent. Among 55 and older readers, 71.3 percent read newspapers in 1998, but they slipped to 66 percent in 2005.
When old people like me were in public schools, teachers often furnished newspapers and told us to read them in classes. That is not happening much today, probably because the young teachers themselves don’t read newspapers.
Walter Hussman, the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, made a speech last week and said that the Internet was taking away newspaper readers. He said computers got more popular for readers when the Associated Press decided to sell its news to things like Google and Yahoo that are on most computers. Hussman is a board member of the AP, but he said he couldn’t stop it because it wanted to get the money.
Some journalists are saying that newspapers could save money by skipping Monday and Tuesday editions. Free daily papers are starting in almost all big cities. This free paper, the Arkansas Times, started distributing 500 papers in 1974 as a paid circulation publication, and now 32,000 are picked up every week.
Walter Pincus, a Pulitzer Prize reporter for the Washington Post, made a speech in Little Rock a month ago. He had an idea of how newspapers can still sell plenty of newspapers. “Maybe start writing more stories that people want to read.”