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How American Newspapers Have Declined Over The Years

Alast month edition of the Sunday New York Times had a special section telling you everything you didn’t  want to hear about the decline of American newspapers. The section focused on the closing of a few small weekly papers, some of them around for more than 100 years. It also mentioned the once major papers that are no more, some of them having merged into former competitors.

The Times reported that during the last 15 years some 2,100 newspapers, or roughly a quarter of all local newsrooms, have either merged or ceased printing. Most of them you never heard of, but some, including Denver’s Rocky Mountain News and The Cincinnati Post, were once powerful voices in their markets. Hundreds of counties, including many in the south, don’t even have modest weekly papers.

Our personal history has confirmed this trend. The Philadelphia neighborhood weekly paper we did some work for as a teenager once had a big following. It is long closed. So is the Evening Bulletin, once the dominant paper in Philadelphia, for which we were a stringer in college. Locally, in the late 1980s we were briefly a columnist for the Hollywood Sun-Tattler, now 30 years in the grave.

The New York Times piece appeared just before the announcement  of a proposal that two of the largest newspaper chains would become one. GateHouse Media, owner of The Palm Beach Post and Palm Beach Daily News, and 450 other papers, wants to acquire Gannett, which owns more than 100 papers, plus USA Today. The Times cited GateHouse’s operating style: cutting staff at its acquisitions  by about half in a matter of months. Considering that most papers have been forced to make similar cuts, our three prominent Florida papers (Miami Herald, Sun-Sentinel and The Palm Beach Post) have done an admirable job of maintaining quality.

The problem is that newspaper readers are aging. Some younger people have never read one, much less subscribed. While the print industry may be the most obvious victim of the internet revolution, other media are feeling the pain. Mainstream evening news is largely watched by an audience that’s dying off. Notice how many ads are about health care or selling your insurance policy to provide retirement income? Those ads don’t mention that you might be just a chest event away from cashing in that policy, providing plenty of retirement income for the beneficiary.

So where do people go for information? The internet, of course. It is often ahead of not only the papers, but also mainstream TV, in reporting stories. Example: Last month TV was reporting that the El Paso mass murderer had left a manifesto, but it did not report the details. Switch to the internet and there it was before it was published by the mainstream channels and a full day before it appeared in newspapers. It seems that somebody out there always knows the identity of mass shooters or figures involved in other sensitive matters before the authorities are willing to release names. The danger, of course, is inaccuracy. We saw one name briefly connected to the Dayton mass murders that turned out to be wrong. It was also reported initially that the real shooter was a perfectly normal kid, but he turned out to be anything but.

The internet revolution has brought pain to numerous industries. Big stores—and sometimes whole malls—are closing. People who like to shop (and a lot of younger folks don’t) still go to stores, but increasingly the ease of online buying is having an effect. Many other industries are being forced to evolve, not all because of the internet, but because old habits are disappearing.

This issue features Jennifer Conover’s remembrance (page 38) of living part-time at Mar-a-Lago. She describes the architectural turmoil behind designing that great house. Now, believe it or not, architecture is another field feeling the pressure. Rich people still hire architects, but many less well heeled save money by either designing their own structures, (the internet can be helpful) or picking one already in the inventory of their builder.

Some politicians think we have too many modern-day Marjorie Merriweather Posts. But not architects.