We’ve all heard it: “Print is dead.” But is it? In Gloria, several young editorial assistants have landed jobs at a storied cultural magazine in New York City—but the strains of their daily grind are far from their glamorous professional dreams. Nearly 300 years since the first newspaper, print media is now slashing staffing and column inches—if not declaring bankruptcy or closing altogether. Book publishers are suffering from online pricing policies, while brick-and-mortar bookstores are shuttering. Modes and methods have changed—and the industry must evolve to survive.
The first American multi-issue newspaper, the New England Courant, was printed by Benjamin Franklin’s older brother in 1721; since then, there have been tens of thousands of daily and weekly newspaper mastheads published in the country. But print journalists and their publishers have had to fight an increasingly tough battle throughout the years. The early part of the 20th century saw radio news as a threat to newspaper sales (the first radio news broadcast was in 1920 in Detroit, and the medium grew in popularity through the ensuing decades), but the advent of television news combined with a growing mistrust of the media during the Cold War proved even more damaging. Perhaps the biggest challenge yet came in the 1990s, with the advent of the Internet and the exploding ownership of personal computers.
Historically an expensive profession due to the volume of people involved—reporters, photographers, editors, proofreaders, fact checkers, columnists and more—media costs were initially subsidized by corporate, personal and classified advertising. But the 1999 founding of the website Craigslist wiped out a significant percentage of classified advertising income, while increased online dating site usage has nearly eliminated earnings from personal ads placed by lonely-hearts. In 2005, Arianna Huffington founded The Huffington Post, first an aggregator of political news and eventually an enormous community of bloggers and commenters. This model eliminated many of the high costs of running newspapers: “HuffPo” presented reportage from other sources in a way that invited user engagement through comments sections, allowing visitors to communicate with each other, like a sort of global water cooler. This new format arguably led to a decline in editorial quality, but to many users that didn’t matter. And with their high operations costs and declining advertising income, most print newspapers suffered. The value of publically traded American newspapers declined nearly 50% between 2005 and 2008. A survey by the Carnegie Corporation suggests that newspapers trail a distant third as a “trusted news source,” after the Internet and television.
“Today, almost all serious newspapers are scrambling to adapt themselves to the technological and community-building opportunities offered by digital news delivery,” The New York Times’ Eric Alterman writes. Modern consumers, on average, prefer speed to quality, interactive to static, and opinionated (at least, opinions that match their own) to non-partisan. The rise of shallow content (surveys and “listicles” prevail online) and sensational, uninformative headlines satisfy cravings for news now. (An actual headline from CNN: “14-year-old girl stabbed her little sister 40 times, police say. The reason why will shock you!”) It’s not that readers no longer have an appetite for long-form journalism; rather, blog posts masquerading as journalism are much easier and cheaper to produce and therefore overwhelm and drown the visibility of long-form works. In his book The Vanishing Newspaper, Philip Meyer estimates that, if the industry doesn’t dramatically evolve, the last issue of the last printed newspaper will be delivered in October 2044. In the meantime, staffs are cut, word-counts slashed and page numbers dwindle.
Online, readers can purchase and consume single articles from a newspaper, single songs from an album, single episodes from a television series. But one finds little value in a single chapter from a novel.
The world of book publishing is faring better, but has had to make significant adjustments to survive. Sales of e-readers peaked in 2011 and have since declined (2016 showed roughly one-third as many e-readers purchased as in 2011), but e-Book sales continue to grow; more than one third of American adults have read or will read at least one e-Book this year. Hardcover books are more expensive to buy, but they are also more expensive to produce; a publisher can sell an e-Book for half the price of a hardcover and still increase the profit margin of the sale by 50%. In the last eight years, hardcover sales have decreased 2.5% and paperback sales have decreased 5.5%, but e-Book sales have increased nearly 5,000%. And though print sales have declined since the release of the Amazon Kindle, overall fiction sales (print and digital) have increased to the tune of nearly two billion dollars per year, suggesting that appetite for long-form literature is not flagging. Romance, suspense, true crime and mystery especially are on the rise—and more and more, those books are turned into movies, creating more income opportunity for publishing houses. Non-fiction sales are down, but that trend began before the advent of e-Books; data collected by Nielsen suggests that growing Internet use is the cause for this decline, particularly in the areas of reference and travel.
The New Republic’s Evan Hughes writes, “Part of the problem for journalism, music and television is that they are vulnerable to disaggregation.” Online, readers can purchase and consume single articles from a newspaper, single songs from an album, single episodes from a television series. But one finds little value in a single chapter from a novel. Hughes continues, “Hollywood has fallen victim not to disaggregation but to its opposite.” Netflix allows access to all content for one low price, diminishing the perceived value of a single film. Amazon and other companies like Scribd are beginning to experiment with an all-access subscription model for e-Books, but they’ve yet to radically change the market, due in part to a refusal from most of the largest publishing houses to participate.
In addition to the numerous financial challenges facing traditional news media in recent years, news organizations must also now face an alarming, content-specific obstacle: combating the rise of so-called “fake news,” which prevailed during the recent volatile election cycle. These articles are mostly distributed online and through social media outlets, allowing often anonymous writers to spin rumors, conspiracy theories and flat-out fiction into “news” stories. Newspapers may just have a bit more fight in them yet: in just the first week post-election, The New York Times saw an increase in 41,000 paid subscriptions across its print and digital platforms—the largest subscription increase since the outlet introduced a pay-wall in 2011, suggesting the public may have a renewed interest in supporting established and trusted media institutions after all.
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