The Future of Newspapers: An Interview with Martin Langeveld

Martin Langeveld writes a regular blog for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. He is a former publisher of several New England newspapers, including my hometown daily, the Berkshire Eagle. A few weeks ago I heard him deliver a paper entitled Out of Print” to the Monday Evening Club. The following interview focuses on that paper and the ensuing conversation about it.

RF: The piece of information that most surprised me was that newspaper circulation has been in decline for decades, long before the proliferation of cable TV and the Internet. Why is that?

ML: Well, of course TV did start to eat into people’s time as early as the late 1940s. In absolute numbers, newspaper circulation peaked in 1984, but as a percentage of households (ie., how many households out of 100 take a newspaper), it has been dropping since since shortly after World War II, and more precipitously since 1969.

In 1940, there were 118 papers sold per 100 households. By 1947, this had actually risen to 132, but it has declined ever since. In 1969, there were still 100 newspapers sold for every 100 households, a 1-to-1 ratio, although obviously some households read no paper and others read several. By 1980, the rate had dropped to 77 per 100; in1990 it was 66 per 100; in 2000, it was 51 per 100, and in 2008 it was 42 per 100.

Clearly, this is a long-term trend that pre-dates the internet. It’s age-related: each successive age cohort reads newspapers less, and as it ages, it decreases its readership. Today even the prime newspaper-reading age groups of people in their 50s and 60s read newspapers less than those same people did 10, 20 and 30 years ago. The average newspaper reader today is about 60 years old, and that average continues to rise.

RF: Why did this happen?

ML: My feeling is that it relates to the proliferation of interests we have experienced since the first half of the 20th century. During most of the period from World War I right through Vietnam, the country had a lot of concerns in common: wars and the depression. We were all in the same boat together, we all talked about the same things, we had little disposable income for frivolous purchases and pursuits. So we all read the same newspapers to know what was going on, and newspapers could cover most of our common concerns and interests. But since the late 1960s, our interests have gone in a million different directions; generally increasing prosperity and discretionary income turned us into a nation of niche interests; and we just don’t want, or need, the common ground of a newspaper everyone in a community reads.

RF: You describe the current economic downturn, and the advent of Internet classifieds (such as Craigslist) as creating the conditions for “a perfect storm” that is accelerating the decline of an already faltering industry. Where do you see things headed?

ML: There has been no slowdown at all in the rate of decline. In fact, it’s accelerating. In the first quarter of 2009, the total advertising revenue drop for daily newspapers was almost 29 percent, following a drop of 17 percent for all of 2008 vs. 2007. And circulation for the 6 months ending March 31, 2009 dropped 7 percent versus the year-earlier period, which was the largest decline on record. So it’s hard to be optimistic.

On top of this, many newspaper owners have onerous debt loads they can’t handle any more; they have no access to credit or capital, and they’ve been cutting resources and talent for years. So it is hard to see how, as an industry, they can pull themselves out of this tailspin. That said, there are many individual newspapers, especially smaller ones, that are still profitable on an operating basis and probably have some life left in them. Eventually, however, I think the daily newspaper will be a thing of the past. But I do see a longer-term opportunity the dailies to morph into weeklies or twice-weeklies — my thought would be a Sunday-style weekend paper printed and distributed on Friday, with no breaking news, just features, analysis, and the traditional Sunday-paper function of being a guide to all other media.

RF: Some of the responders to your paper expressed concern that the loss of traditional journalism would mean less public and political accountability. What are your thoughts about that?

ML: For a long time already, newspapers have not been the sole watchdogs and trustees of accountability. Most people by far get their news from television (for better or worse, but there’s certainly good journalism on TV and cable), and late last year for the first time, news online moved into second place ahead of newspapers, which are now the third most-cited source for news. But beyond newspapers, there are plenty of other watchdogs organizations including various public-interest non-profits, and there is a fast-growing sector of for-profit and non-profit online news sites. What they cover is still spotty, but they’ll soon cover the spectrum from local to national including a lot of niches never really addressed by newspapers. This conjures up the notion of your neighborhood blogger working in pajamas, and those are around, but there will be plenty of individuals and organizations with a real journalism ethic and motivation. For example, there’s now a network of regional investigative journalism non-profits. The Associated Press has just announced a trial run to distribute their material. And there are numerous examples over the last decade when bloggers, not traditional media, have been the first to uncover something and blow the whistle (starting, for example, with the famous discrediting of Dan Rather’s 60 Minutes reporting about documents purporting to relate to George Bush’s military record; CBS fired a number of staffers in the aftermath and Rather’s reputation never really recovered).

RF: Although newspapers have on-line sites, they aren’t getting much share of the eyeballs. Why is that?

ML: Although newspapers were pioneers on the Web in the mid-1990s, they haven’t worked hard enough at keeping up with what it takes to attract eyeballs and to engage Web users (meaning, keep them longer on their sites). There’s any number of reasons for this. One is the chronic revenue problems of the last few years, which have meant that the online operations of newspapers haven’t gotten enough resources in manpower, hardware, or software. As result, for example, many newspapers still don’t put hyperlinks in their stories — something that’s just a basic and expected features of the Web. But their print-oriented content management systems don’t let reporters enter hyperlinks into stories, so the online versions have no links. Even the papers that do hyperlink often have reservations about linking to pages outside their own site — again, that’s a pretty basic Web practice and user expectation, but site editors have had a walled-garden mentality. Even The New York Times only introduced outside linking within the last year or so.

But the biggest reason newspapers don’t enjoy much visibility online is that they have not realized, at highest levels, that they need to become digital enterprises. Because of the demographic reasons I cited, as well as for environmental reasons and because of the sheer complexity and cost of the supply chain from trees in Canadian forests to your front stoop, nobody would invent the newspaper business model today if it didn’t already exist. The future for news and information delivery is just inevitably moving to the digital realm, including desktops, laptops, smartphones and e-readers. But to this day, newspaper editors and publishers are writing columns declaring that print is here to stay. The work flow of most newspapers is oriented around the press start time, not around a 24/7 online publishing culture. So all these things conspire to limit the usefulness and visibility of newspaper content on the Web, and as a result, newspapers do not have much standing in the top online news destinations. They get only about one percent of the total page views of U.S. Web users and a little more than one percent of the total time spent online. With the right practices, that could be dramatically better.

RF: Do you worry that a city without a daily newspaper will lose a common source that created community as the new sources of information fragment into niches?

ML: Not really. Communities have been breaking up into niche interest pockets on their own, it didn’t take the diminishment of the central position of newspapers to do that. “Community” stops being meaningful in larger cities, so in in terms of residential groupings I think we’re talking about villages, towns, small cities, and neighborhoods here. At this level, weekly newspapers may still be viable for a long time. But community web sites have good potential to fulfill that “community glue” role, as well.

Also, if you expand “community” to mean interests other than residential groupings, social networks like Facebook, and even unstructured messaging on cellphones and Twitter creates communities. On Facebook, and elsewhere on the Web, you can find interest groups to join on just about any subject that strikes your fancy. Before the Web came along in the early 1990s, there were “news groups” on the internet serving a lot of niche communities, but before that, it was a lot harder to meet up with, say, your fellow counted cross stitch enthusiasts. The whole concept of “Red Sox Nation” didn’t exist before the Internet enabled it.

And as bloggers, you and I both have the ability to attract our own niche community that’s focused on what we have to say. They interact with us by commenting, they recommend (or not) our ruminations to their friends, and they point us to interesting material to explore. And we interact with other bloggers to form a larger community centered on our interests.

RF: As a pastor for thirty years I always had an eye on how the newspaper served the community. You have described newspapers as local monopolies whose purpose was to get readers to attract advertisers. At the same time you described a tradition where publishers felt a mission to the betterment of the community. I’m thinking about how the Eagle back in the day had free obits, and a staffer who put them into a standard form. That is all gone. Now you pay and the family writes it and we get to hear about Fluffy the cat and Dad’s love of the Red Sox. And obits of community leaders often had a feature. I am thinking of our two recently deceased MEC members, Robert Newman, who was head of the Pittsfield Public Library for decades, and Tomas F. Plunkett, a former city counselor. Once upon a time there would have been a feature on the first page of the local section. That is an example of a community service that will go, but will anything take its place if its all about advertising?

ML: I think we’re in the middle of a transition from newspapers of record to something else of record, and during the transition, some things are getting lost. Not having front-page obits for community leaders like Bob or Tom is more a function of lack of institutional memory at The Eagle than it is about the changing business model for news.

And actually, I kind of like the content of some of the obits that are now printed just as the family submitted them. To me, they’re often more interesting than the editor-curated cut-and-dried ones. Remember that at First Church, in Pittsfield, only male deacons served communion until sometime in the 1960s, and they did so wearing tails. The deaconesses cleaned up afterward. Some traditions are not particularly missed.

So as we move through the transition, the newspaper’s role as the intermediary for obits may disappear entirely. There are already several national networks that publish obits tastefully and allow friends to record words of condolence in “guest books” (with a good approval system for those comments, by the way). The business model for these goes through newspapers right now, and newspapers are raking off an exorbitant fee while they still can, but there’s no reason the obit sites couldn’t work directly with funeral homes. And, while it may seem a little sacriligious to suggest this, there’s no reason Facebook couldn’t serve as a general conduit for people to learn about deaths in a community, as it already is beginning to do for births, weddings, birthdays and other lifecycle events.

RF: So in what other ways will people get their information where and when newspapers go away?

ML: Nobody really knows exactly, at this point. The Web is young, the transition from legacy media to the digital environment is not complete. But we’re starting to see where things might be going. Journalists that once had to be part of an infrastructure of bricks, mortar, machinery and trucks are creating a new ecosystem for news online. As I mentioned earlier, this includes a wide variety of sites ranging from local blogs to regional investigative sites to national political sites. On sites like Politico and RealClearPolitics, politics and especially elections are being covered with an intensity that no newspaper ever sustained. And on neighborhood blogs like WestSeattleBlog, communities are being covered in greater detail than radio, newspapers or television stations possibly could. We don’t have these in all communities yet, but I think we will.

Plus, new tools are coming along to connect us with news. A student in a focus group, whose name is not known as far as I can tell, is famous for having said, in response to the question of why he didn’t read newspapers: “If the news is that important, it will find me.” When newspapers were the principal source of news, we had to pick them up and read them. It was somewhere between a chore and a pleasure. On the Web, so far, we’ve had to use search and bookmarking or visit news aggregation sites to find news. In a way this is work, also, and has its frustrations. But increasingly, news just finds us — you get an email, a Tweet, you notice a Facebook post, something shows up in your RSS feed. And the Web is now developing user-centric tools that use semantic technology to connect people with news and information based on interests, preferences and demographics.

RF: Thank you, Martin, for taking time for this interview.

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