Death of Newspapers: Time to accept the inevitable conclusion

A vending machine sells Chicago Sun-Times newspapers on a street corner in the Loop on December 2, 2013 (Getty …

Growing up in the 1940s-1950s, I was the newspaper consumer par excellence.

But now, to my regret, I cannot make such a claim.

For background, my home town of Scranton, Pennsylvania had both morning (ScrantonTribune) and afternoon (ScrantonTimes) daily newspapers. I read both avidly, and my long-suffering next-door uncle even permitted his nephew to read the afternoon paper before he did.

Television wasn’t a dominant feature for me. For much of my early life, the family didn’t have television (which now deprives me of crossword puzzle answers for references to Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, and even the Mouseketeers members). I never engaged with “the most trusted man in America” (Walter Cronkite) or wondered about Huntley and Brinkley interactions as they said “good night.” And I’ve always thought Sunday morning interview shows are a time-waster – the talking heads never say much, and anything of substantive import will be in the Monday newspaper, anyway.

Indeed, I believed that TV news, even before it became “infotainment,” delivered next to no news. If you wanted comprehensive information, evenwith a twisted ideological slant, you needed newspapers, magazines, and opinion writers.

Such was the same when I attended university in the 1960s: Morning (Philadelphia Inquirer) and afternoon (Philadelphia Bulletin) newspapers were daily fare, although a penurious college student would sometimes think twice about expending a nickel, hoping to find the paper in the university library.

It was during my first diplomatic assignment that I encountered the new phenomenon of the “party” or ideological newspaper. Thus in Paris, to be an informed political officer, one read widely: liberal left, businessman special, socialist, communist, counter-culture, each with its own agenda. Subsequently, it was the same in Athens and comparable in Brussels. “Truth” came in shards; it was up to you to assemble the pieces.

[ David Kilgour: Newspapers vital to democratic culture ]

Consequently, I was pleased with assignments in Washington where there was at least a pretext of presenting the news as “news” with opinion reserved for editorials and op-ed columns. For a period, Washington also had morning and afternoon newspapers. In the United States, the peak of newspaper power was arguably in 1974 with the protracted Watergate scandal, spear-headed by the Woodward and Bernstein Washington Post reportage, ultimately driving President Nixon from power. Every dewy-eyed liberal arts major then wanted to be a journalist.

But this paradigm has been irreparably shattered.

Newspapers are not "your father's Oldsmobile" but your great-grandfather's Model-T.

Great newspapers have been falling like nine-pins; the remainder often resembles emaciated concentration camp survivors of their previous selves. Afternoon newspapers surrendered long ago to the evening news.The two-newspaper-town is largely an artifact of the past, often reserved for one “serious” paper and one “tabloid” featuring lubriciouson-the-edge-of-soft-porn female (or male) photos to be cut out prior to deploying the rest of the paper to the litter box.

The reason isn’t hard to find: money. Seeking aprofit when advertisers have concluded newspapers don’t deliver buyers has resulted in desperate off-loading, “early retirement” staff reductions, shrinking page sizes, dropping features, eliminating foreign correspondents, using more “wire services” and cheap “stringers,” etc. The attempt to capture readers through creative Internet use is flailing; it still doesn’t attract significant paid advertising (or readers willing to pay for the electrons since they believe everything on Internet should be free). Today’s millennials get their information from multiple IT-related sources, starting with television and emphasizing social media services like Twitter, which reduces thought to 140-character blips. Newspapers are not “your father’s Oldsmobile” but your great-grandfather’s Model-T.

Indeed, newspapers are moving into a niche category of interest to a limited category of citizens. Papers such as Financial Times or The Hill Times focus on specialty professional groups. Just as opera or “theatre” rarely have the mass audiences they once did, newspapers’ appeal is becoming tertiary. Some seek survival by increasing ideological content. Just as Torstar provides ritualized support to Liberal/liberals, Sun Media endorses conservatives.There are no “must read” columnists of the Walter Winchell, Scotty Reston, or Drew Pearson type.

Others, including the iconic Washington Post have sold themselves to new billionaire magnates before going broke (for the Post it was Amazon.com Inc.’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos). And finally there are local community papers of the give-away/throw-away nature recounting the tribulations of school boards and the triumphs of local sports teams.

Ultimately, newspapers have simply lost the modern upper-middle class reader. Example: of my three brilliant, PhD-caliber daughters, only one gets a newspaper – the financier for whom The Wall Street Journal is a working tool and nothing more.

None of these developments auger well fornewspaper longevity. One can see the last page being turned.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.