The Paper of the People—and Its Death

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Issue 9, Volume 111

By Isabel Ching 

Since America’s birth, printed newspapers have brought information to the public. They have carried news about wars, politics, people, and the world. Our nation’s roots can be traced back to the power of the printed paper. During the Revolutionary War, newspapers sparked and sustained the flames of rebellion and dissent, informed the public about wars and battles, and ultimately united a divided nation. In the words of American Revolution historian David Ramsay, “In establishing American independence, the pen and press had merit equal to that of the sword.” Newspapers were a powerful force in ensuring American independence and have continued to uphold the values for which independence was fought. Yet over three centuries after the publication of America’s first newspaper in 1704, it seems that the era of printed newspapers may be coming to a close.

Today’s printed newspapers are dying a slow and painful death. Prior to the development of online news sources, printed newspapers were the main source of information and dominated much of the public sphere, because they connected previously isolated communities. However, people today no longer need their daily newspaper—a few clicks online suffice instead, as most news nowadays is easily accessible and available for free. The truth is that printed newspapers are, and have been, on the decline since the advent of the Internet. Despite the large, positive role that printed newspapers have played in the past, it’s time to acknowledge that their death may simply reflect the changing of eras and offer the news world an opportunity to move forward.

Research reflects the death of printed newspapers. Printed newspaper circulation fell to its lowest level since 1940 in 2018 with total daily newspaper circulation (printed and digital) numbering around 28.6 million for weekdays and 30.8 million for Sunday publications. Financial difficulties have arisen as a result of this decline too: advertising revenue for newspapers is estimated to have dropped 62 percent from $37.8 billion in 2008 to $14.3 billion in 2018. The pandemic has only exacerbated the existing decline. As Americans are no longer able to afford small luxuries due to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, newspapers have reached the nadir of their suffering during this past year. Six publicly traded newspaper companies, which collectively own over 300 daily papers, saw advertising revenue fall by a median of 42 percent from the second quarter of 2019 to the second quarter of 2020. With such drastic declines, it seems unlikely that the newspaper industry will ever return to its previous prominence.

However, America’s insatiable desire for fresh and exciting news has not waned—in fact, it is stronger than ever. The chaotic, political climate of today’s world, coupled with the leisure time that quarantine offers, has left Americans hungry for news—just not printed news. Online platforms, like television and digital news reports, have become the new modern center for information. For one, they don’t require the same amount of labor as their printed counterparts, which often need to be delivered and packaged. Second, they tend to be much cheaper, since they can reach a larger audience without needing to be distributed. In fact, advertising revenue for three of America’s biggest broadcasting networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, increased over the same period while newspapers’ advertising revenue fell 42 percent. The three media giants averaged a combined 30 million viewers, a 39 percent jump since last year. Digital platforms experienced growth as well. In contrast to their printed newspaper counterparts, digital newsrooms saw substantial increases in employment, with numbers increasing approximately 82 percent from around 7,400 to 13,500 between 2008 and 2018. This shift represents a transition from traditional printed newspapers to digital news as the latter is simply more convenient, cheap, and accessible. Forsaking these benefits simply to maintain tradition would be blatantly disrespecting progress.

While some view the end of printed newspapers as the end of a cornerstone of American journalism, printed newspapers are a thing of the past, and the most we can do is respect and acknowledge their death. This death, however, need not be synonymous with the death of free, accessible knowledge. If anything, the switch to online media sources, like television and websites, should make knowledge more accessible to the public, since printed newspapers are more expensive and difficult to obtain. In fact, there are already efforts made to promote this progress. Organizations like the American Journalism Project, which strives to establish a network of nonprofit, reliable news outlets, provide a great starting point if we are to leave behind the era of printed newspapers and begin the transition to online platforms. Ultimately, the death of printed newspapers should not be emblematic of an end to news as we know it—rather it should represent the birth of a new era of information and public knowledge.