People say that the newspaper industry is dying. And it’s true. For instance: my employer, the newspaper Investor’s Business Daily, is going from daily to weekly and has laid off 40% of its staff, including me.
But if you consider newspaper death a new development — well, sugarplum, the newspaper industry has been dying for decades.
Newspapers have been in trouble since the 1930s, when the combination of the Depression and the rise of radio news began pulling readers and the all-important advertisers away from newspapers. Newspapers faced even more pain when television news became a real competitor in the 1950s.
By the mid-1960s, many newspapers that weren’t dying were so weak that they had to join forces in order to survive, which is how we ended up with newspapers bearing such clumsy names as the San Francisco News-Call Bulletin (which closed in 1965) and the New York World Journal Tribune (dead in 1967). Cities with multiple newspapers had become two-paper towns on the verge of becoming one-newspaper towns.
You know that times are bad for the news media when politicians, including the press-hating President Richard Nixon, would sign on to help them — but that’s what happened. The Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970 act suspended the monopoly and anti-trust laws, allowing a single company to run both papers in a two-newspaper town if one of them was about to die “because of economic distress.”
The Preservation Act gave a bit of breathing space, but it didn’t save newspapers. In 1982 alone, the once-powerful Philadelphia Bulletin, Cleveland Press and Buffalo Courier-Express died. Granted, ’82 was a recession year. Still, those papers had survived previous recessions; and even in the more prosperous days of 1986, major papers in Baltimore and St. Louis went under. More deaths followed: the Louisville Times (closed in 1987), Columbia Record (1988), Jacksonville Journal (1988), Los Angeles Herald-Examiner (1989), Kansas City Times (1990), Dallas Times Herald (1991), Pittsburgh Press (1992) — oh, how the dominos fell. And that was before the Web took hold.
News and advertising on the Web have drained circulation and advertising revenues, the newspapers’ life blood. But the process is nothing new. The Web has simply sped it up.
I don’t know if newspapers will go away entirely. I’ll miss them if they do. Their decline is sad and regrettable.
But it shouldn’t come as a shock. It’s an obit that they’ve been writing for decades.