Newspaper journalism: whining but not yet dead


Let me briefly introduce two items today and invite you to click through this cover page for more.

  • I’ll take a third and final look at the new (as in more efficient) media by citing a few snippets from, and taking a few snipes at, a piece by Slate’s Jack Shafer in which he tells newsroom whiners to heed “The Bloomberg Lesson.”
  • And perhaps you noticed that the World Association of Newspapers said rumors of the industry’s decline are greatly exaggerated because circulations are up planet-wide. Well, yeah, but the paid circulation is up in Asia and Africa, and down in Europe and North America; and in the latter two regions, free circulation news is growing rapidly. That does not seem like good news for journalists.

The graphic is from an article Shafer wrote in November contrasting the success of Bloomberg News with the malaise afflicting the mainstream press. (If you are not familiar with Bloomberg, the Wikipedia entry is a place to start). Shafer starts the piece by noting how journalists have a sense of job entitlement second only to government workers, then allows that “the miserable . . . whiners have a point” because their numbers are declining:

“According to decennial workforce estimates published in The American Journalist in the 21st Century, the number of daily newspaper journalists rose steadily from 38,800 in 1972 to a peak of 67,207 in 1992 before sliding to 58,769 in 2002, the most recent year surveyed,” he writes.

Contrast that to the rapid growth of Bloomberg’s financial reporting empire, which has arisen in the last quarter century to challenge established finance powers Dow Jones and Reuters. How? Shafer doesn’t really explain other than to say Bloomberg took risks and focused his information and news products tightly on financial news (“our prinicpal mandate is to cover anything that has money written on it,” Bloomberg’s Washington, D.C. bureau chief tells him). Oh and then there’s the work ethic of Bloomberg which stands in contrast to the leisurely pace of newspaper newsrooms (many of which are unionized). Shafer writes:

“Bloomberg pays well but forces its reporters to work harder than mules carrying hods of bricks up ladders.”

It’s a brisk piece that’s worth a quick read. I cite it today as a follow up to the new media job skills survey I wrote about on Monday and the academic paper that I mentioned on Wednesday in which a sociologist calls new media journalists “flexible laborers” caught up in a “news cyclone.”

I dwell on all of this because it seems that there is a clash between what the market wants from journalists and their self-appointed mission. The market wants journalists to follow the money or, if they haven’t the financial savvy, at least to follow Anna Nicole Smith, Paris Hilton or whomsoever may be the fav-du-jour — and by the way bring an audio/video recorder along with the notepad ’cause the viewer wants the actuality.

Journalists, by contrast, imagine that they are christened warriors in the service of Truth and Justice. Representative of this sense of mission (or as Shafer says, “entitlement”) is recent essay titled “A Call for Conscience Journalism.”

Read it and weep. Or just whine.

* * *

I can’t blame Timothy Balding, CEO of the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers for sugar-coating the data from its World Press Trends report. “What we are seeing completely contradicts the conventional wisdom that newspapers are in terminal decline,” he says in a press release. The full report covers newspaper titles in 165 countries though circulation is only available for papers in 92 nations. Nevertheless it is a tremendous effort and worth studying. Balding cites the optimistic data including:

  • Globally, combined paid-for and free newspaper circulation increased 9.95 percent over five years, and 2.36 percent over one year, in 2005, the most recent period for which full-year figures are available.
  • The total number of paid-for daily newspaper titles worldwide jumped over the 10,000 mark for the first time in history, to 10,104, a 13 percent growth from 2001, when there were 8,930 titles.

But when we look down at the highly informatives tables it seems that most of the circulation gains are in the developing world; that average paid circulation per title is down in all continents except Europe and South America (more papers but fewer readers per each?).

And one of the biggest increases was in free papers. The report says:

Free daily newspaper circulation more than doubled from 2001 to 2005, from 12 million copies in 2001 to 28 million in 2005, an increase of 137 percent.

Free circ papers are a phenomenon we see particularly in California, where the alternative press is a by and large populated by free-weeklies. Many do a lot of good work. But the trends in the WAN report show paid circulation declining in North America. And the less journalism can count on paid support the weaker it becomes relative to advertiser pressure. And that seems not a good thing, as I’ve opined before. 

Still, WAN is right to remind us all that “newspapers represent a nearly 180-billion-dollar industry worldwide (that) employs nearly two million people world-wide.”

So even if they are in decline, they still have plenty of whining left in them.