The decline of newspapers — nothing to do with journalism

February 17, 2008

The decline of newspapers - nothing to do with journalism

Declin­ing news­pa­per read­er­ship has noth­ing to do with journ­al­ism. Should I say that again for the hard of hear­ing?

Amongst those not listen­ing, the nor­mally wise and per­cept­ive Howard Owens:

If our read­ers so eas­ily recog­nize that what we do isn’t trust­worthy for its accur­acy both in fact and spir­it, then how can we expect to retain them as read­ers?

Some­thing needs to change.

Deaf, too, at New Media Bytes:

My guess is…journalism didn’t deliv­er what people wanted. Read­ers spoke with their wal­lets and read­er­ship rates. The same happened with U.S. auto­makers, which failed to pro­duce vehicles coveted by the Amer­ic­an pub­lic.

Wrong. And wronger. In case one, the decline of news­pa­pers has almost noth­ing to do with the lengthy mor­al fail­ures of print journ­al­ism. And in case two, how do you explain grow­ing news­pa­per cir­cu­la­tion in coun­tries like India? They must be prac­tising a kind of super-journ­al­ism!

I could call it a trib­ute to journalism’s cul­ture of self-fla­gel­la­tion — but it is actu­ally a typ­ic­al human response: seek­ing to explain events bey­ond our con­trol by ref­er­ence to ourselves.


  • The decline of Vaudeville had very little to do with the declin­ing effect­ive­ness of one-liners and the rel­at­ive mer­its of nov­elty acts.
  • The decline of drive-in movie theatres was not the fault of Hol­ly­wood screen­writers.

And, if you really want to keep going back in time:

    The crops did not fail because we offen­ded the gods.

The prob­lems journ­al­ists are con­front­ing are to do with the chan­ging social habits of people who once pur­chased news­pa­pers and were thus appeal­ing to advert­isers.

Besides, the very first study of read­er pref­er­ences in news­pa­per con­tent (by George Gal­lup at the start of the 1930s) revealed that the things people liked best in them were not the journ­al­ism, but the pic­tures and com­ic strips.

This post is my — ok, late — con­tri­bu­tion to the Car­ni­val of Journ­al­ism, hos­ted this month at Innov­a­tion in Col­lege Media.

++Fur­ther read­ing++

Journ­al­ism not to blame for news­pa­pers’ decline 2

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