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An Inefficient Democracy: A Look at the Decline in Newspapers as an Institution

Updated on February 19, 2012
Photo by Lindsay Ensing
Photo by Lindsay Ensing | Source

Newspapers are dying. In every direction, citizens are losing interest in the things that truly matter. According to 2009 figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation, a total of 30.4 million Americans buy newspapers from Monday through Saturday. Without a reference point 30.4 million sales a week might seem like plenty, but the Newspaper Association of America claims that in 1940, 40.1 million Americans bought a newspaper every day (Ahrens). While it is apparent that the era of the newspaper is fading away, many members of the net generation question why the decline even matters. Therein lays the problem. In a country where citizens have power over their government, the significance of reading the news and keeping up with important issues is shrouded in doubt. I believe that the decline of newspapers as an institution is the result of a technologically tethered society obsessed with speed and scandals. Furthermore, the loss of newspapers and journalism will inevitably destroy the functionality and effectiveness of our democracy.

While many theories have surfaced to explain the cause of the drastic decline in newspaper circulation, the most popular theory blames the internet. It is easy to assume that the internet has decimated the popularity of newsprint simply because the internet allows free access to news, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Despite the newspaper industry’s multi-billion dollar investments to create online editions, newsprint editions are still the more popular medium. According to statistics on the New York Times website in 2003, the average user of the website only visited 5.7 times per month and spent less than 35 minutes on the site throughout that month. Contrastingly, according to survey results from Northwestern University’s Readership Institute of the Media Management Center, the average newsprint reader reads a newspaper 14.7 times per month and spends approximately 28.2 minutes per day reading the paper (Crosbie).

The newspaper industry’s main goal in creating online editions was to gain readership, specifically from a younger audience. A study done by Belden Associates of 8,000 online newspaper readers estimates that only 25% of online readers are ages 25-34 and only 9% of online readers are ages 18-24 (Crosbie). These numbers bear an astounding resemblance to the demographics found for readers of newsprint editions. Apparently, the newspaper industry did not accomplish its goal.

Interestingly enough, people often speculate that the speed of technology is making it difficult for newsprint editions to keep up with current events. Over the last decade, people have become increasingly obsessed with immediate results and instant access. In a 2010 TV ad for a website called Mycleanpc.com, the narrator asks viewers if they have become frustrated that their emails take more than three seconds to load. If American society doesn’t have the patience to wait three seconds for an email, why would anyone want to wait 24 hours for the next newspaper? A lot of events can take place within 24 hours and those who hold an interest in news may want to be informed immediately. While speed may be preferred, readers should keep in mind that speed can also sacrifice the accuracy of news reports. For example, Congresswoman Gabrielle Gliffords, the recent victim of a shooting in Arizona, was initially reported dead as a result of an eager field reporter. Upon further investigation, it was made apparent that the Congresswoman was indeed alive and on her way to recovery (Sky News).

Beyond the development of a faster lifestyle, the younger generation is slowly developing a different perception of what “real news” is. Rather than being concerned with world affairs, the younger generation is concerned with what’s new in popular culture and celebrity entertainment. TMZ, a website centered on celebrity news and scandals, has continued to grow in popularity since its debut in 2005. On February 22, 2009, TMZ was one of the first to post photos of hip-hop star Rhianna after she was allegedly beaten by her boyfriend at the time, Chris Brown. That week alone, TMZ got nearly 7 million visitors and traffic on the website has steadily increased since then (“TMZ Traffic…”). This only goes to show what people are “concerned” about in today’s times.

If society is ready to disregard the newspaper industry as a whole then society must be prepared to face the consequences. The loss of newspapers would not only present the risk of anti-intellectualism, but people would also lose the sense of community they once gained from having a local newspaper. Of course, national news should generally be of greater concern to citizens, but local newspapers allow cities and counties to keep up with local government decisions and they also provide information on communal events. Despite many people lacking interest in local government, the availability of political information at either the city level, state level, or national level is equally important in a democracy.

Photo by Jon S.
Photo by Jon S. | Source

While newspapers may be losing revenue from the lack of circulation, they are also losing money due to the decline in interest from advertisers. According to an article in USA Today, the newspaper industry has lost 46% of their ad revenue from 2006 to 2010 (“U.S. Newspaper…”). With the steep plunge in profits, many newspapers have resorted to closing their foreign bureaus. In 2007, The Boston Globe announced that it would close its last remaining foreign bureaus in Berlin, Bogota, and Jerusalem (Hughes). Similarly, NBC has closed bureaus in Beijing, Cairo, and Johannesburg, while ABC has closed bureaus in Moscow, Paris, and Tokyo (Russo). The closing of foreign bureaus means that the United States looses the opportunity to gain first hand information on international events. As far as news readers are concerned, or should be concerned, the loss of foreign reporting results in a loss of various perspectives on world events. With many different reports coming from different locations and agencies, readers can sort out biased news and form ideas of their own. With such a loss in reliable reporting, Americans may lose that advantage.

Yet another consequence of the declining newspaper industry, and perhaps the scariest and most relevant in the context of a democracy, is the fact that a lack of good journalism and news reporting decreases the transparency of government. A competent democracy functions on the premise that the people are informed of government activity. Therefore, the people can actively participate in the voting process and protect themselves from authoritative rule. Without a newspaper industry, scandals in government would go unseen. The Watergate Scandal of 1972, which inevitably led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon under the threat of impeachment, would never have been released if it wasn’t for Washington Posts journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (“The Watergate Story”). The less knowledge citizens possess, the easier they are manipulated. Citizens should praise the newspaper industry rather than letting it disappear.

While one could argue that TV news is in swell shape despite the failing newspaper industry, many TV news stations are infamous for being biased and partisan, which is the last thing citizens should want when attempting to familiarize themselves with current events. It is no secret that one of the most skewed news networks to date is Fox News. In a review of the network entitled “Why Fox News Is An Industry Joke”, Ron Kaufman states that “Like Ishmael in Herman Melville's Moby Dick or Nick in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Fox News is a modern day example of the ‘unreliable narrator’. Fox News places an acute spin in nearly every story it presents and in some cases presents untruths as truth. Fox News Channel is arunning commentary on the news rather than traditional objective reporting”. The popularity of Fox News in the U.S. is slowly diminishing the average American’s ability to analyze factual, non-biased, raw information and develop opinions and ideas of their own. Sensationalist TV news should never serve as a substitute for legitimate newspapers.

A single convincing solution to the problem surrounding the newspaper industry has yet to arise, but rather it seems that multiple steps will need to be taken to revive the dying institution. First and foremost, technology, the industry’s nemesis, should be used to provide individual readers customized newspaper editions. Gerd Finkbeiner, the chairman of the world’s largest manufacturer of newspaper presses, says that customized newspapers are not a matter of ‘if’, but a matter of ‘when’ (Crosbie). Newspaper manufacturers have become accustomed to mass producing identical newspapers with analog press printers, but that may have to change if they want to continue producing newspapers at all. With the introduction of mass digital printers, the newspaper industry could free themselves from generic publishing limitations. Each reader has unique interests. Consequently, each newspaper should be just as unique.

Ideally, newsreaders of the future would be able to subscribe to certain aspects of the news that suit their individual interest and they would receive a fully customized newsprint edition. While this may seem counterproductive to the anti-intellectualism argument, each and every newspaper would contain standard headline news in addition to the custom print. Important world events would still be printed and accessible, but with the reader’s full attention now grasped, citizens may be more inclined to follow headlines intimately.

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One of Apple’s newest applications has already begun to move the newspaper industry ahead. Known as The Daily, Apple has created an electronic newspaper accessible only through the Ipad. The Daily was only launched in the past week so it is hard to say whether or not its success will pan out, but Apple has taken a huge leap of fate by tacking on a subscription fee of $.99 a week or $39.99 a year. While some journalists have speculated that the Ipad and other E-readers are the future of newspapers, The Daily is one of the very first electronic news sources to have all original content and a subscription fee, and will serve as a guinea pig for this modernistic news medium. It is important that the newspaper industry pay close attention to Apple’s venture into the unknown, for it may be the future of journalism or a complete train wreck.

Beyond playing to individual interests and experimenting with new mediums, newspapers should also encourage their journalists to be more creative in their writing. Each journalist should, of course, be well-written, but they should aim to develop personalities similar to those of radio DJs and TV newscasters. Dedicated followers of TV news programs and radio stations often tune in to view their favorite individuals. Such followers may have not held an initial interest in the program, but could have been persuaded to watch due to a mesmerizing persona. Whether it’s a certain newscaster that possesses the ability to throw in the occasional quip, or a radio DJ with a smooth voice, people tune-in to follow personalities. If a person prefers a certain journalist, the newspaper would feel like less of a commodity and they would be urged to keep up with their favorite writer.

Lastly, if newspapers are able to successfully get a rise out of society, businesses should reduce their prices. This would engage competition between individual companies and stimulate the industry as a whole. While some have suggested that newspaper companies should begin to work together, that may lead to a monopolistic industry that lacks the motivation to report accurately and enthusiastically.

As made apparent, the decline of the newspaper industry as an institution in a democracy is a severe problem that America has come face to face with. Active news reports and journalism are absolutely vital in a democracy. Innovation, individuality, and competition are undeniably the backbone of American society, and by injecting these values into the veins of the newspaper industry, it could quite possibly regain its relevancy in American culture.

REFERENCES

Ahrens, Frank. "The Accelerating Decline of Newspapers." Washington Post. N.p., 27 Oct. 2009. Web. 26 Jan. 2011. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/26/AR2009102603272.html>.

Crosbie, Vin. "What Newspapers and Their Web Sites Must Do to Survive." Online Journalism Review . N.p., 4 Mar. 2004. Web. 28 Jan. 2011. <http://www.ojr.org/ojr/business/1078349998.php>.

Hughes, John. "US media can't cover the news if they don't cover the world ." The Christian Science Monitor. N.p., 7 Feb. 2007. Web. 28 Jan. 2011. <http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0207/p09s01-cojh.html>.

Kaufman, Ron. "Why Fox News Is An Industry Joke." Turnoffyourtv.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2011. <http://www.turnoffyourtv.com/networks/foxnews/foxnews.html>.

Russo, Diana Saluri. "Is the Foreign News Bureau Part of the Past?." Global Journalist. N.p., 30 Jan. 2010. Web. 28 Jan. 2011. <http://www.globaljournalist.org/stories/2010/01/30/is-the-foreign-news-bureau-part-of-the-past/>.

Sky News. "Early False Report - Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords Dies After Being Shot In The Head ." YouTube. N.p., 8 Jan. 2011. Web. 28 Jan. 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QU4fLK6hOk8>.

"TMZ Traffic Booms." The Huffington Post. N.p., 6 July 2009. Web. 26 Jan. 2011. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/07/07/tmz-traffic-booms-tops-ya_n_226882.html>.

"The Watergate Story." Washington Post . N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2011. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/watergate/part1.html>.

"U.S. newspaper ad revenue falls 10%; Online revenue up." USA Today. N.p., 27 May 2010. Web. 26 Jan. 2011. <http://www.usatoday.com/money/media/2010-05-27-news-advertising_N.htm>.

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    • dmop profile image

      dmop 5 years ago from Cambridge City, IN

      You have written a very good article with lots of good facts about the declining newspaper business. I think the root cause is the internet, specifically, all of the other news facets on the internet that aren't connected with a newspaper. Voted up and interesting.

    • loveofnight profile image

      loveofnight 5 years ago from Baltimore, Maryland

      I wish that I could say that I am surprised about the paper decline, but I see it as something that was on it's way out for some time.

    • Davesworld profile image

      Davesworld 5 years ago from Cottage Grove, MN 55016

      I quit reading the newspaper when it became obvious, even to a slow-learner like me, that the editorial page had merged with the news desk. There is altogether too much opinion masquerading as news in modern newspapers. This is something you should factor into your analysis.

    • maxoxam41 profile image

      Deforest 5 years ago from USA

      I never was an avid newspapers reader however, since the birth of the internet, I always read the online version of my newspaper although it's been losing its objectivity.

      My main interests are the international, the planet and the economic pages.

      Do you really think that newspapers reflected transparency? When the Times boasts the benefits of capitalism, in what way is it critical, objective? In that case, why not relating the news without their opinions?

    • WretchedRapture profile image
      Author

      WretchedRapture 5 years ago from California, USA

      I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!

    • easylearningweb profile image

      Amelia Griggs 5 years ago

      Very interesting hub. I can see the technology and faster ways to access the latest news will eventually replace newspapers. I think this will take a long time, but I think all of it see if coming.

      Thanks for sharing this informative article.

      Welcome to Hubpages!