Goodbye Newspapers?

January 14, 2009

A student dialogue and two readings examine the declining readership of newspapers, especially among young people.

Ask students to consider the following questions and then to pair-up for a short discussion of them. (See a description of the pair-share dialogue in "Engaging Your Class Through Groupwork")

1. What is your main source for the news? A newspaper? TV? The internet? A teacher? Friends and family? Something else?

2. Do you ever read a newspaper? If so, how often? What? Why?

Then invite students to offer their sources of news and attitudes toward newspapers in a class discussion before turning to the readings.


Student Reading 1:

What's happening to newspapers?

Headline: "Young Adults Are Giving Newspapers Scant Notice"

"Young people today do not make an appointment with news every day the way older adults do," was the conclusion of Thomas Patterson, a Harvard professor of government and the press who conducted a survey, "Young People and News."

"We found that most young adults don't have an ingrained news habit," he said. "Most children today," he said, "when watching television are not watching the same TV set that their parents are watching. So even if their parents are watching the news every day, the children are likely to be in another room watching something else and aren't acquiring the news habit."

"What we found is that what people mean when they say they are engaged in the news has much more of a glancing, superficial basis than anything we would have hoped," said Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center, which released the report. "Young people seemed to think that just listening to the radio in the background was listening to the news."

The news was especially bad for newspapers like the New York Times . Only about one in ten teenagers said that they read a newspaper every day. But bad news for newspapers has been relentless for some time.

This past December the Tribune Company, the publisher of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times filed for bankruptcy protection. Recently, the E. W. Scripps Company put its Rocky Mountain News up for sale and said the paper might be forced to shut down. And many newspapers that continue to publish are shrinking. In Silicon Valley, the Mercury News , long considered one of the country's best, had more than 400 employees just a few years ago, but now has fewer than 150.

Patterson summed up: "My sense is that newspapers in their traditional form are not going to be able to recapture this [young] audience. What's happened over time is that we have become more of a viewing nation than reading nation, and the internet is a little of both. My sense is that, like it or not, the future of news is going to be in the electronic media, but we don't really know what that form is going to look like." ( New York Times, 7/16/07)

"What is really frightening is that newspapers appear to be dying so quickly that they may disappear, or at least disappear as a serious part of our lives, before we have a replacement for them. That's a grave danger to democracy," said David Maraniss, Washington Post journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winner. "Maybe newspapers can be replaced, probably newspapers can be replaced. But journalism can't be replaced-not if we're going to function as any kind of democracy." (from "Newspapers...And After?" John Nichols, The Nation, 1/29/07)

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1787: "The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive these papers, and be capable of reading them."

On the way to having a government without newspapers.

  • The Los Angeles Times has reduced its staff by almost one-half since 2001.
  • The Baltimore Sun and the Chicago Tribune have reduced their staffs by one-third
    since 2005.
  • The New York Times Company reported a 51.4 percent decline in revenue during
    the third quarter of 2008.
  • The Christian Science Monitor announced in October 2008 that after a century it
    would stop publishing a weekday newspaper
  • Gannett, which publishes USA Today and other newspapers countrywide that make
    it the largest newspaper publisher in the country, announced last year that it was
    laying off 10 percent of its reporters and other workers-some 3,000 people.
  • The Miami Herald announced last year a 17 percent cut, or 250 jobs in its staff.
  • Weekday circulation for the largest metropolitan daily newspapers fell anywhere from
    1.9 percent for the Washington Post to 13.6 percent for the Atlanta Journal-
    during the first six months of 2008.
  • Falling 10 percent or more were the Houston Chronicle , Boston Globe, Star-Ledger
    of Newark, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Detroit News .
  • Almost two-thirds of American newspapers publish less foreign news than they did
    just three years ago, according to a Pew Research Center report.
  • In the third quarter of 2008, advertising revenue for newspapers dropped 18 percent,
    or almost $2 billion from the same period last year.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why do you suppose that so few students read a newspaper regularly?

3. Why do you suppose that Jefferson would rather have had newspapers without a government than the reverse? Do you agree? Why or why not?

4. Maraniss wrote that newspapers could probably be replaced, but not journalism. What do you think he means? Do you agree? Why or why not?

5. What are major indicators of newspapers' decline?


Student Reading 2:

What's killing newspapers?

On September 25, 1690, Publick Occurrences, Both Forreign and Domestick became the first newspaper to appear in America. It had three pages of text that focused on local news and a fourth blank page on which buyers might add some news of their own to pass on. But its publisher Benjamin Harris managed just one issue. Why Massachusetts authorities shut the paper down after just one issue is unknown. It may have been because Harris did not have the required license or perhaps because some of the news appears to have included gossip and "unflattering" comments. (

More than three centuries later, "Few believe that newspapers in their current form will survive," writes Eric Alterman in the New Yorker . He quotes Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times , saying: "At places where editors and publishers gather, the mood these days is funereal. Editors ask one another, 'How are you,' in that sober tone one employs with friends who have just emerged from rehab or a messy divorce." (Eric Alterman, "Out of Print," The New Yorker , 3/31/08)

There are reasons. One is loss of advertising, stemming mostly from a drop in readers, whom advertisers want to reach. Another is declining readership due to a series of technological developments, beginning with radio in the 1920s, followed by television in the 1950s, and now the internet. But as Russell Baker, long-time writer and columnist for the New York Times , pointed out, "How the internet might replace the newspaper as a source of information is never explained by those who assure you that it will. At present about 80 percent of all news available on the internet originates in newspapers, according to former [ Los Angeles Times editor] John Carroll's estimate, and no internet company has the resources needed to gather and edit news on the scale of the most mediocre metropolitan daily. Moreover, corporations like Google and Yahoo apparently have no interest in going into serious journalism. (Google has an automated news site, Google News, which sifts through hundreds of online newspapers and news agency reports; and Yahoo includes news agency reports on its Yahoo News site. But neither fields its own reporting staff or provides its own news coverage)."

Carroll pointed up another reason for the dying newspaper." The functions that were once the realm of strong publishers have been taken over by Wall Street money managers. The breakdown at the top began some forty years ago when local owners began selling their papers to corporations....Under the old local owners, a newspaper's capacity for making money was only part of its value. Today, it is everything. Gone is the notion that a newspaper should lead, that it has an obligation to its community, that it is beholden to the public....What do the current owners want from their newspapers?-the answer could not be simpler: Money. That's it." ("Goodbye to Newspapers," New York Review, 8/17/07)

"Owners are moving to satisfy investors by slashing newsroom staff, pressuring unions to accept cuts, dumbing down coverage of important issues, eliminating statehouse, Washington and foreign bureaus...and generally sucking the life out of what were once considered public trusts-or by selling out to firms that will do the same thing...." (John Nichols, "Newspapers... and After?" The Nation, 1/29/07)

Another newspaper observer, New York Times columnist David Carr, commented that newspapers "do not have an audience problem-newspaper websites are a vital source of news and growing—but they do have a consumer problem." Those reading Carr's column in the Times are in the minority. "The same information is available to many more millions on this paper's website, in RSS feeds, on hand-held devices, linked and summarized all over the web," writes Carr. "Clearly the sky is falling. The question now is how many people will be left to cover it." (David Carr, "Mourning Old Media's Decline," New York Times, 10/29/08)

Newspapers, James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker, seem like railroads early in the 20th century—"a once-great business eclipsed by a new technology.

"People don't use the Times less than they did a decade ago. They use it more. The difference is that today they don't have to pay for it. The real problem of newspapers, in other words, isn't the internet; it's us. We want access to everything, we want it now, and we want it for free. That's a consumer's dream, but eventually it's going to collide with reality: if newspapers' profits vanish, so will their product….

"For a while now, readers have had the best of both worlds: all the benefits of the old, high-profit regime-intensive reporting, experienced editors, and so on-and the low costs of the new one. But that situation can't last. Soon enough, we're going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is." (James Surowiecki, "News You Can Lose," New Yorker, 12/22/08 & 12/29/08)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. The executive editor of the New York Times, probably the best-known newspaper in the country, does not believe that newspapers in their current form will survive. What are some of the reasons? Why are they so compelling? What other forms might newspapers take?

3. If you think the internet will replace newspapers, what explanation would you make to Russell Baker about how that could happen? Keep in mind that some 80 percent of the news on the internet now originates in newspapers.

4. What functions of the newspaper does Carroll emphasize? Could these functions be performed through some other medium? How?

5. What is the newspaper's "consumer problem"?

6. What is Surowiecki's warning? Does it make sense to you? Why or why not?

For writing

Select one of the following subjects for a well-developed paper.

1. Why I do or do not read a newspaper regularly

2. What my sources of news are and why I think they are adequate

3. Why Jefferson was right, or wrong

4. Why newspapers are gradually disappearing

5. How the internet can replace newspapers

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: