March 11, 2020

Years ago, and I do mean years ago, I would watch my grandfather take the evening paper and a cup of coffee to the front porch, sit down in a rocker and read the entire newspaper, cover to cover. He did this before dinner; year after year without fail.  He was one of the best-informed men I have ever known.  A veteran of WWI, he realized that an informed citizen was critical to any democracy.

If we flash forward fifty years, we realize that one consequence, intended or unintended, of the digital age, is the demise of many newspapers and news magazines.  The digital age is marvelous transferring information but at a great cost, at least in my opinion.

The web site “24/7 Wall Street” tells us that over two thousand (2000) newspapers have closed in the past fifteen (15) years.  The newspaper industry has continued its relentless downward spiral, which started with the advent of the internet and accelerated during the Great Recession. The pace of the decline has not slowed. New research shows that over 2,000 newspapers have closed since 2004, a staggering figure given that the industry was once among the largest employers in America. According to Penny Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism, is widely considered the preeminent authority on the number of newspapers in the United States. That is not an easy task, since the number is in the thousands, and some are so small that their fates are hard to track. She is the author of “The Expanding News Deserts,” a term coined to describe areas where there is almost no local news coverage.

Abernathy told 24/7 Wall St. that, “It appears at this stage that we’ve lost approximately two thousand one hundred (2,100) papers, all but seventy (70) of which are weeklies, since 2004.” The industry implosion has left almost half of the counties in America (1,449) with only one newspaper, which is usually a weekly. As of the most recent count, one hundred and seventy-one (171) counties do not have a paper at all.

The number of papers in America is currently about seven thousand (7,000), but as revenue at most of them declines, that number is bound to shrink further. Some newspapers already are close to shuttering. Publishers, both individual owners and chains, have resorted to the equivalent of life support. A recent example is that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which was started two hundred and thirty-three (233) years ago, will cut the number of days it is printed from five to three. Two years ago, the paper appeared seven times a week. Management says that it plans to phase out the print edition completely. While the paper may survive online, the “downsizing” will cost dozens of jobs. A drop in the numbers of days a paper appears is part of the industry’s playbook to cut expenses.

Almost all of the other daily newspapers in America have similar problems. Print advertising has been eroding for nearly two decades. Classified advertising, in particular, has moved almost entirely online. Digital advertising growth at most newspapers has slowed. The digital advertising business, in general, is difficult because of the large market share held by Google and Facebook.

Papers also have difficulty convincing readers to pay for digital subscriptions. This is for two reasons. The first is that most newspapers have cut so many editorial employees that they cannot create compelling content. The other is that there is a massive amount of news, entertainment and sports material available online for free.  We all can thank the digital age for this one.  The digital map below will give you an indication as to the number of closings:

The tan dots show weekly newspapers and the blue dots show the daily newspapers. It becomes more evident when we look at the map. 

A recent survey indicates that most Americans get their news from social media.  OK, this is going to really get to you.  The Pew Research Center report found sixty-eight (68%) percent of people polled said they used social networks for news, with twenty (20%) percent saying they got information “often” from those services including Facebook and Twitter.  I consider Facebook and Twitter to be two of the least reliable sources on the planet for “hard and factual” news. That’s my opinion.

The percentages were largely unchanged from a year ago despite heightened scrutiny over misinformation and manipulation of online platforms, including by foreign actors.  More than half of those surveyed—fifty-seven (57%) percent—said they expect the news they see on social media to be “largely inaccurate,” according to Pew. Why continue to read it then?   Still, most respondents said getting news this way has made little difference in their understanding of current events—thirty-six (36%) percent said it helped their understanding of current events while fifteen (15%) percent said it made them “more confused.”

The survey comes with social networks under intense scrutiny as they become more important “gatekeepers” of news, with President Donald Trump and his allies recently accusing tech firms of political bias.  In the Pew survey, only eleven (11%) percent of respondents said news on social media was “too biased” while ten (10%) percent said the information was “low quality.”

Concerns about accuracy were more prevalent among Republicans, with seventy-two (72%) percent expressing this concern, compared with forty-six (46%) percent of Democrats and fifty-two (52%) percent of independents.

An estimated sixty-seven (67%) percent of Facebook’s users get news there, as do seventy-one (71%) percent of Twitter users and seventy-three (73%) percent of Reddit users. But because Facebook’s overall user base is much larger, far more Americans overall get news on Facebook than on other sites.

Smaller percentages get news from other online platforms such as YouTube, Tumblr, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat and WhatsApp, according to the report.  Pew surveyed 4,581 US adults between July 30 and August 12, with an estimated margin of error for the full sample of 2.5 percentage points.


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