News of newspaper demise premature

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 14, 2005

I’ve read a great deal in the past week about the impending death of the newspaper industry. The eulogies were issued based on the latest Audit Bureau of Circulation Reports, which showed a continuation of the now 35-year decline in readership.

For some papers, notably the San Francisco Chronicle that lost about 17 percent of its paid circulation, the loss was devastating. For most, the losses were manageable, though hardly less disappointing, in the range of 1 to 4 percent.


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The Drudge Report Web site seems to be taking particular delight in the depressing news, having posted at least three different reports on the subject in the past week.

The bad news mostly concerns large, metropolitan, be-everything-for-everybody daily newspapers. Smaller, more locally focused, daily and weekly newspapers do not seem to be experiencing as rapid a decline, and in many cases, like the News-Herald, we’re seeing readership growth year over year, though we have to fight tooth and nail for every reader we can get.

There are many culprits for newspapers’ declining readership fortunes. Perhaps chief among them is the Internet, where more and more people are turning for their news, and getting it for free.

We’ve seen a tremendous jump in usage of in the past year and it’s a trend we expect to continue.

People also get most of their news, again in effect for free, from television.

Publishers are doing anything and everything to try to reverse the trends. Steeply discounted circulation is one; the thinking being that if they can maintain their circulation numbers, they can offset the circulation losses through advertising revenue. In more and more metropolitan markets, we’re seeing free, tabloid format, daily newspapers, some being delivered to homes and others available free in racks and on countertops.

Newspapers, too, are diving head first into the Web, attempting to leverage their news-gathering resources to out duel the likes of Yahoo and Google that don’t have teams of reporters.

I don’t know the answer to the newspaper industry’s problems. I wish I did. I suspect, however, the answer will be Web based and it will involve a total shift in the 400-year-old newspaper paradigm.

For instance, it won’t just be a Web newspaper. It amazes me that some newspapers are investing so heavily in their Web operations but are using the same format to deliver the news. They are actually putting complete newspaper pages on their sites for readers to click on what they want to read.

I liken that strategy to Henry Ford and other automobile pioneers saying, “Hey, instead of steering wheels, let’s put reins on these carriages because that’s what people are accustomed to steering with.” Now if we could only figure out how to make black ink rub off from your keyboard and throw that electronic paper into some sort of virtual ditch, we’d be in business.

Mercifully, they didn’t do that. They left the old way of doing things completely behind and that’s what newspapers will have to do as well.

I think the electronic newspaper of the future will certainly include audio and video and will be a much more dynamic, interactive medium. It will also be free and advertiser-supported. Readers will be able to almost instantaneously post news and commentary. But most importantly, it will be intensely local, not just news about your city, but news about your neighborhood, your street, your living room.

Personally, even though I make my living in newspapers, I’m not that concerned. Local news is our franchise. Nobody can do it as well.

As long as people take pride in and care about their communities, there will be a place for newspapers.

That’s why I’m not worried, because when they stop caring, the future of newspapers will be among the least of our troubles.

I need to correct a faux pas in last week’s column. I mentioned the structure going up on Shoulders Hill Road. I wrote that I thought it was the new north Suffolk YMCA. A couple of readers were kind enough to politely correct me, pointing out its Creek Side Elementary. Sorry for the error.

Andy Prutsok is publisher of the News-Herald. He can be reached at 934-9611 or at