I HATE TO WRITE AN OBITUARY for something that isn't quite dead yet -- but the American newspaper is in a death spiral. I hate to write its obit in the very newspaper in which I am published -- but I can't figure out where would be a better place to put it. And I figure I may not have long to publish it.
I have seen this coming for quite a while – forty-four years to be exact. I have been in the newspaper business for some time. In 1965 I was a paper boy for the Danville Commercial Appeal, a weekly newspaper. Danville also had a healthy daily paper, and not long before had an evening daily as well -- before Walter Cronkite and his ilk killed it and the nation's other afternoon newspapers off.
I remember thinking, one morning as I walked my paper route: "This is a crazy way to get people the news." I came up then with a solution: use fax machines, which existed then but were not common, to send readers articles on things they were interested in. Four decades later, reality finally caught up with my lazy adolescent brain, only now they call fax machines computers, the Web, the Internet -- that kind of stuff.
But you haven't had to be an expert to see some of this. It has been pretty obvious for quite a while that any major industry built on the backs of 13-year-old boys didn't really have a good business model. Now the Internet really is jeopardizing the future of the remaining morning daily papers as both readership and ad revenues continue to shrink.
Many newspapers are shrinking -- literally. One local paper, which I will not mention by name because I am writing for them right now, looks positively anorexic sitting in their single-copy sales boxes made for a larger format paper. And either my arm is getting much stronger or newspapers are getting notably thinner as well.
But, as Philip Meyer, UNC professor and the former head of research for the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, has said, as paraphrased by me, the response of newspapers in general to these tough economic realities is dismayingly stupid. What mom and pop restaurant which was losing business would cut portion sizes, reduce quality, cut staff, raise prices and then expect to stay in business another week? (Answer: none.) So, what makes newspapers think that they can do the equivalent of that and survive? Professor Meyer doesn't know and neither do I.
To compound things, readers are dying – literally. As readership declines, it also is rapidly aging. If you don't believe me, just find a twenty-something who subscribes to a daily newspaper -- and see if you don't have a real oddball on your hands.
As long as news is free tonight from news-aggregation sites such as Google News, it will be increasingly hard to get anybody to pay for papers delivered the next morning.
In the meantime, Craigslist has been eating up the business of the classified ad section -- which was once the most profitable part of the newspaper. (Free will beat paid, any time, any where.) And targeted web ads, such as those that come with Google searches, beat vague collections of ads or stacks of inserts all day long.
I don't know if I am part of the problem or part of the solution. Working for nothing, as Local Voices columnists are wont to do, certainly doesn't help the circumstance of the paid journalists we may displace, but certainly we may help the circumstance of the failing newspapers we prop up.
But do understand, while newspapers may be going away, news is not. Rest assured, someone, somehow will provide it.
Gary D. Gaddy, who was the owner of the Forest Hills neighborhood Commercial Appeal paper route from 1966 to 1968, holds a doctorate in Mass Communication Research from the University of North Carolina and taught journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin--Madison for a while.
A version of this column was published in the Chapel Hill Herald Thursday July 24, 2009.
Copyright 2009 Gary D. Gaddy