Print journalism croaks: it’s been a long time coming

The Great National Newspaper is dying, and everyone wants to write its obituary.

Usually these farewells to print journalism, fond or otherwise, focus largely on the internet as the cause of its inevitable demise. However in this month’s New York Review of Books Russell Baker puts forward an interesting alternative thesis that focuses on the issue of newspaper ownership and its impact on newspaper quality.

He points out that whatever the consequences of the internet for news might be in the future, that at the moment 80% of all news content available on the internet originates in newspapers. For now, at least, newspapers have the resources and networks needed to dominate news gathering, and even net giants such as Google haven’t attempted to challenge this role.

Baker then presents an interesting account of the effects that investors and shareholders have on the nature and quality of journalism. He points out that newspapers such as the New York Times which attempt to separate editorial control from ownership (The UK’s Guardian newspaper is another prime example) are better placed to maintain their traditional standards and appeal.

However what sits uncomfortably in Baker’s account is his assertion that there was a Golden Age of newspaper ownership where individuals or families ran papers for the good of democracy and the public, rather than to line their own pockets.

I don’t claim any expertise on the history of newspapers, but it is hard to imagine that the public service role newspapers played was due to the squishy hearts of their owners. Newspaper proprietors may not have been beholden to shareholders, but surely their top priority would be building a strong and profitable business to support them and their families.

If newspapers used to be ‘better’, it is surely because they faced different demands fifty or a hundred years ago when they were the one of the only national sources of news and information.

Today a newspaper doesn’t need to fill your appetite for local, national and international news and analysis; it just needs to help you pass the time while you sit on the tube for ten minutes. As radio, TV, and yes, the internet, have provided alternative sources of information, it is less important for readers that their newspaper be as detailed and comprehensive. This is borne out by the fact that the peak newspaper readership per capita in the USA was back in the forties, just before mass TV broadcasting began.

If this theory is right, the changes to newspaper content shouldn’t alarm us too greatly. The things the newspapers are no longer providing are probably being provided elsewhere. Newspapers may be closing foreign bureaus, but that’s OK because we can now access the domestic newspapers of foreign papers online (as well as alternative voices such as the Baghdad blogger).

Whether newspapers as we know them survive, and in what form is an open question, but there is a chance they will limp on, divested of all value, like the zombie that is Murdoch’s londonpaper (the London free-sheet with ‘stories’ ripped straight from the newswire). When a newspaper’s only purpose is to flog advertising space and litter your streets, it’s time to put it out of its misery.