Are we at the beginning of the end for newspapers?

For the last 200 years, the newspaper has functioned as the most authoritative disseminator of both news and up-to-date information across much of the world. This privileged position at the top of the information pyramid may be about to change. Now, many newspapers are struggling to survive, hit by a double whammy of falling readership and lower advertising revenue. While we might blame the drop in advertising revenue on the current recession, readership we cannot, as normally the pattern in recessions is for newspaper sales to increase.

Therefore, either people are less interested in news, or readership is dropping because the newspaper is losing its relevance, gradually being replaced by new media forms.newspaper

This downturn in newspaper sales has led Democratic senator, Ben Cardin, to introduce a bill that has become known as the “Newspaper Revitalisation Act.”  The bill proposes that newspapers can become non-profit organisations with associated tax breaks so as to guarantee their continuance.

Motivation for Cardin’s bill is a fear that if newspapers are not looked after, then the public sphere will lack the information necessary for the proper functioning of a healthy democracy. President Obama has said he will take a look at the bill. As we can see from The Hill, he too has some very real concerns about the newspaper industry:

Obama said that good journalism is “critical to the health of our democracy,” but expressed concern toward growing trends in reporting — especially on political blogs, from which a groundswell of support for his campaign emerged during the presidential election.

“I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding,” he said.

But how worried should we be really about this now-threatened media form? This question might best be answered by reference to a newly released book, A Better Pencil, which looks at many of the current social concerns surrounding new communication technologies such as the Internet, Facebook, Google and Twitter.

The book is timely because it also details the historical developments of various media technologies, as well as the anxieties that have typically accompanied any new developments.  Below is a particularly pertinent extract taken from an interview with the author, Dennis Baron, who outlines some of these historical anxieties:

“I start with Plato’s critique of writing where he says that if we depend on writing, we will lose the ability to remember things. Our memory will become weak. And he also criticizes writing because the written text is not interactive in the way spoken communication is. […] Of course we remember all this because Plato wrote it down — the ultimate irony.

We hear a thousand objections of this sort throughout history: Thoreau objecting to the telegraph, because even though it speeds things up, people won’t have anything to say to one another. Then we have Samuel Morse, who invents the telegraph, objecting to the telephone because nothing important is ever going to be done over the telephone because there’s no way to preserve or record a phone conversation. There were complaints about typewriters making writing too mechanical, too distant — it disconnects the author from the words. That a pen and pencil connects you more directly with the page. And then with the computer, you have the whole range of “this is going to revolutionize everything” versus “this is going to destroy everything.”

Often, it seems, we argue for the retention of outmoded media technologies when either (1) we do not understand the new technology, or (2) it threatens/disrupts the comforting rituals and familiar patterns to which we have become accustomed. Personally, I can’t imagine my daily breakfast ritual without my morning paper. Having said that, I have noticed in the last couple of years that the time spent perusing the newspaper has become shorter and shorter, mainly because I have already read much of the news online the night before. Would I miss the morning paper if it disappeared forever? Yes. Would it be the end of the world? No.

So, I ask you, do you think that you are better informed today about world affairs than you were 5, 10 or 15 years ago? Can you (and do you) read further and deeper into the news than ever before? Could you ever go back to just one source of news?

Further reading at Notes: Heading towards a paperless world

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2 Responses

  1. My lecturer went on an hour long rant about how it was the end of the newspaper industry to a class full of public relations students… He was a former journalist only a few months ago. Its obvious where the rant stemmed from

    • Ahh, the ranting, bitter lecturer — not that I’d know anything about that… 😉

      I don’t think the industry will die. It will change and adapt, and for that reason I don’t believe it warrants government help to survive.

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