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The death of print? Says who? And so what?

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“Daily papers face unprecedented competition, sometimes from their own Web sites,” shouts the page 19 story in the Feb. 28-March 6 Washington Post National Weekly Edition.

The lede:

“The venerable newspaper is in trouble. Under sustained assault from cable television, the Internet, all-news radio and lifestyles so cram-packed they leave little time for the daily paper, the industry is struggling to remake itself.”

Sure sounds like the news biz is trying stave off its imminent demise, doesn’t it?

Well, that’s not the whole story. The Post uses as examples of “daily newspapers,” or quotes executives of, itself (number 5 in circulation at 1,007,487), The New York Times (number 3 at 1,680,583), Houston Chronicle (number 10 at 737,580), The Boston Globe (number 12 at 707,813), The Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer (number 20 at 462,920), Chicago Sun-Times (number 21 at 486,930, but we’ll ignore it because it cheated by inflating circulation figures), and the Shawnee, Okla., News-Star at an average weekday circulation of 9,688 , which ranks it somewhere around number 800. (See the ABC audit figures.)

In other words, the hype about the death of print resides in fears about the demise of Really Big Newspapers.

Again, more numbers:

The nation’s 1,400-plus newspapers had a daily circulation in 2003 of 55.1 million, down from a 1985 high of about 62.8 million (see NAA figures).

The nation’s top 25 papers in terms of total daily circulation represent about 20.1 million papers, or about 36 percent of the national daily circulation. These are all newspapers with daily circulations above 400,000.

When discussions of the death of print break out, this is usually the orbit of circulation that the doomsayers focus on. Admittedly, all newspapers — because without sufficient profit they cannot operate, and thus journalism dies — face to a greater or lesser degree all the competitive pressures that the Post lists.

But to focus solely on the problems most immediately faced by the nation’s largest newspapers overlooks a helluva lot of other print outlets. True, every newspaper in the land of any size fears most of all loss of its big revenue generator — local classified advertising. The health of a newspaper can be gauged pretty easily by the number of classified pages.

What’s often overlooked in that focus on declining circulation as evidence of death of print — and the big bite of it held by the Top 25 — is twofold:

• Subtract the Top 25 and look at the Bottom 1,431. These mid- to small-market and rural papers cover an extraordinary large geographical area and represent about 35 million in daily circulation. Yes, competitive pressures exist, but given that the median circulation of U.S. dailies is about 12,000, surely the significance of those pressures varies as well as the papers’ responses to them.

• The U.S. has about 6,700 weeklies (defined as papers that publish fewer than four times a week) with a combined circulation of more than 50 million (See the NAA figures). That’s a pretty big number — and a big reason why media companies have focused on acquiring chains of weeklies over the past 10 years. Those buying up these weeklies sure don’t believe that print is dead. Those weeklies do a lot of journalism, too.

So why get charged up by this numerical litany?

It’s important to see a complete picture of newspaper circulation rather than merely lament the impending doom of the Top 25. Without this fuller picture, the conversation about the role of journalism in American life can’t be fully discussed, either.

Consider:

• Bloggers have been pictured in some quarters as the new wave of journalism sans the experienced (biased, the bloggers might say) gatekeeper.

• Newspapers function more by asking readers what they want rather than giving them what editors believe readers need. (Talk about a sad result of competitive pressures!)

• Big Govmint and the Corpokleptocracy would rather we have less information — and therefore less informed involvement — in making political and consumer decisions.

Assuming that the naysayers are right in predicting the death of print also assumes predicting the death of a principal function of journalism.

Government’s principal duty is to collect money, spend it and make laws. The Founders gave the press — them MSM journalists — freedom from interference in exchange for holding government accountable for its actions.

It’s important to understand that journalists at print institutions will be around for a very long time. Sure, more and more papers will add Web sites, etc. But all those 12,000-circulation dailies and weeklies will have journalists doing things that are rather unglamorous — covering town meetings, examining municipal budgets, checking police and fire logs, covering local and state courts, reporting on local and regional educational and environmental issues, and on and on. Can you picture bloggers covering municipal elections — complete with the previews from interviews with candidates, round-up stories on the issues, he said vs. she said stories on the campaign trail — in suburban, exurban and rural America?

Bloggers won’t be doing that. It’s too boring (I know — I did it for 20 years) and few thank-you’s and accolades accrue.

Understanding the breadth of the presence of print journalism in this country needs to be more fully centered in the discussion of who’s a journalist and who isn’t as well as what journalists do and don’t versus what bloggers do and don’t.

Too often these discussions are simplistic, and they shouldn’t be.

Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

March 6, 2005 at 3:45 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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