Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Newspapers continue painful evolution

It was no surprise. There was no “wow” factor. Not even enough to raise an eyebrow at what I read. In fact, had I read it two years ago I would not have been too surprised, either.

IbisWorld, the world’s largest independent publisher of U.S. industry research, issued a report in March listing newspapers among the nation's top 10 dying industries – industries whose decline will continue even as the economy makes a comeback.

As I read, however, there was a pang of sadness, as journalism – particularly newspapers – has marked the lion's share of my 27-year career in the field.

Newspaper readership has been in steady decline since after World War II. The industry tried many ways to combat it – the Newspapers In Education program provided newspapers to schools with hopes of attracting young readers who the industry hoped would become readers of tomorrow. Yet even as the industry pushed that program, it failed to fully consider the march of technology, despite taking advantage of that march for decades upon decades.

Technology also has reshaped newsrooms time and time again.

At many small papers back in the days of the hand-operated press, the publisher sold advertising, did the reporting, set type, did his own printing and sometimes hawked his own wares.

But printing advancements changed that. The publisher soon became more of a business manager who hired ad salesmen, reporters, typesetters and printers and, of course, paper boys.

The typewriter replaced the written word in newsrooms. The telegraph and, later, the telephone, changed the speed with which news spread from publication to publication and became faster tools for journalists to gather information from afar.

Computers replaced typewriters (if you are too young to know what a typewriter is, go ahead and Google it), and computer-proficient designers put pages together electronically, eventually replacing the composing room crews who had manually pasted typeset stories and headlines, photos and captions, to gridded sheets that were then photographed, the negatives used to etch the metal plates that carried the printer's ink to the vast rolls of newsprint used on the offset presses. Mechanical devices then cut and folded the seemingly endless river of newsprint into the newspapers delivered to readers' doorsteps.

All of these advancements helped newspapers grow and keep their profit margins incredibly high. And newspapers became firmly embedded in a business model that suited them nicely, thank you, and profited them well over the generations.

The Internet upended that business model, and technology again has wrought vast changes upon newsrooms.

I've already written my perceptions of how the industry failed to react well to the Internet and lamented the continued demise of the industry I've loved so much for so many of my years. I started reading newspapers at about the age of 7 or 8, trying to understand what compelled my Dad to look over three different publications each day: The Chicago Tribune, the Elgin Daily Courier-News (now The Courier-News) and the former Chicago Daily News, to which Dad subscribed until it folded.

At that young, tender age I fully appreciated what, over the years, I have come to call the “intellectual section”: the comics. And, like many readers, I also learned to accept the discoloration of my fingertips to a muddy gray as I pored over the sections my Dad had cast off.

But newspapers opened my sheltered, then-somewhat rural eyes to my community, to state, national news, to Vietnam and other world news, and of course, to politics.

IbisWorld's report notes there are three cycles to every industry: growth, maturity and decline.

IbisWorld says its database of nearly 700 industries show 200 in decline, and of course newspapers are among the top 10 in that category. The others listed by IbisWorld include:
  • manufactured home dealers;
  • record stores;
  • photofinishing;
  • wired telecommunications carriers;
  • apparel manufacturing;
  • DVD game and video rental;
  • mills;
  • formal wear rental;
  • and costume rental.
That said, I remain confident journalism will continue to evolve, although I worry that the consequences of the newspaper industry's decline over the next decade or so.

I do not believe the industry truly will die, but that it simply is changing shape. I've said before it is in the midst of a paradigm shift, and perhaps the newspaper companies of today will not exist 10 years from now. But journalists will continue to work, and news companies will learn how to survive in the digital world. There may, however, be lapses during that evolution, and those are my source of concern.

Still, I hope that I will be a part of that new world – I'm not an inflexible old dinosaur whose time has ended – in fact, despite what my kids tell me, I am still young and am trying hard to keep pace with the technology. And I've been telling people for years to hang on – the industry's tech change is going to be a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs and incredible developments. But that's an easy prediction to make – all you have to do is look at the technology – and at the possibilities, and see what already is happening.
Yet, the industry's contortions in the coming years will cause pain – and in fact already have caused much. That I was laid off in December and have been unable so far to find full-time employment that makes use of my skills is just one, small example (OK, it's pretty darned big to me, but …) of what already has happened to many journalists. I suspect the casualties are far from over.

So, as difficult as it is to consider, journalism in the coming years may not be the best place for my family. I'm keeping my options open, trusting in God for guidance, and seeking joy in change.