Jack Shafer, who like me is an old-media geezer, has a great piece in Slate about the newspaper business, the primary point of which is that the industry has been confronting an oncoming freight train — and having endless meetings and focus groups about it — for more than 30 years now. To that extent, the apocryphal frog in the pot of water (who never notices as it heats up) is probably a better metaphor, since it has been coming so slowly that it’s easy to ignore.
There are some nice bits in Jack’s piece, including a description of the Newspaper Readership Project from 1976 and a Los Angeles Times story written about it entitled “Newspapers Challenged as Never Before,” and an amazing statistic: “The number of U.S. households and the combined circulation of all daily newspapers was almost at par â€” about 70 million households versus 60 million in circulation. Today, the number of U.S. households exceeds 100 million, but daily circulation is flat or down a couple million from the 1970s.”
But one of the things that really struck me was Jack’s comparison of newspapers to other forms of media, including TV and music (an extension of the argument made by William Bulkeley in a recent WSJ piece). Just as people grew frustrated with compact discs when technology came along that allowed them to sample or download just the songs they wanted, so newspapers are under pressure because people don’t necessarily want to sit down and read all the stuff in their newspaper, and now they have an alternative.
In that sense, the Internet is far more threatening that either radio or TV. Yes, both of those also put pressure on the news-gathering part of being a newspaper, but they were also very similar forms of media — you had to listen or watch at a specific time, and that had limitations. The Internet is always on, and there is as much or as little information as you could possibly want. Information is being atomized and distributed, and that is very difficult to compete with using traditional tools.