Do we really need newspapers? We’ll soon know

Maybe I should revise my estimate.

Lately, many people have asked me about the fate of the American newspaper in an era when circulation, advertising and staff size are all sharply down. I’ve told them what editors have told me: The next 18 to 24 months may well see the first major U.S. city without a daily paper.

It’s a time frame that makes people swallow hard. "That soon?" they say. And I say yes. The end could begin in less than two years.

Now I’m wondering if it’s going to take that long.

Recent weeks have brought the usual bad news for the news business: layoffs at the Dallas Morning News, The Miami Herald and The Los Angeles Times, the Star-Ledger in Newark losing 40 percent of its newsroom.


But here’s the headline that made me do a double take: Last month, The Christian Science Monitor announced it would become the first major paper to abandon print altogether. Beginning in April, the paper will be available only online, though it will produce a weekend print magazine.

The Monitor makes this move after seeing its circulation drop from a reported peak of 220,000 in 1970 to 52,000 today. The decision is obviously an illustration of the dismal state of print journalism. Here’s hoping it’s also a roadmap to its salvation.

Yes, I know. Some of you see the slow death of newspapers as wholly deserved. In this thinking, readers are fed up with coverage that tilts too far to the left. Others will call it proof that readers are sick of coverage that kowtows too much to the right. Still others will see it as a reminder that literacy is declining on both ends of the political spectrum and all points between.

Problem is, those three theses proceed from the flawed assumption that readership (as differentiated from circulation) is down. But actually, thanks to the Internet, more people are reading these words now than could have ever read them 20 years ago. So the problem isn’t readership. It is, rather, finding a way to translate readership into revenue; newspapers were slow to understand the implications of the technology revolution. They have yet to figure out a business model for the Internet era that enables them to support themselves as they did back when print was king.

Until that happens, your average paper is essentially stuck trying to sell 45s in an iPod world. The Monitor is seeking to explode that paradigm, an act I suspect history will regard as either last-ditch futility or visionary courage, no in-between.

You should join me in hoping it’s the latter.

Granted, I am hardly a disinterested observer. Still, I submit that the loss of this or any other newspaper represents more than the loss of a particular news platform in a world with no shortage of the same.

You see, your local news station will keep you up to date when there’s blood on the sidewalk or a new report on how lettuce can give you eye cancer. And cable news will recap big national stories and provide 24/7 coverage of the latest missing co-ed. But only a newspaper reporter will dig through the mayor’s garbage on your behalf.


That is, only newspapers routinely fill the function of government watchdog, particularly at the state and local level.

Only a newspaper will detach a reporter to spend three, four, six months following a paper trail, documenting kickbacks, conflicts of interest, shady deals in the statehouse or the White House.

And if you agree that an informed electorate is essential to a democracy, the danger of losing that should be as appalling as it is apparent.

All of us, then, have a stake in the success of the Christian Science Monitor’s new venture. See, there will always be a need for newspapers.

The only question is whether newspapers will be here to fill it.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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