Today’s edition of The Economist (subscriber only) declares the death of the newspaper. Although newspapers “have not yet started to shut down in large numbers,” says the mournful editorial, “it is only a matter of time.” Over the next few decades, it predicts, “half the rich world’s general papers may fold” because the “business of selling words to readers and selling readers to advertisers, which has sustained their role in society, is falling apart.”
The Economist blames the usual suspect for its morbid prognosis — the internet — citing the rush of newspapers readers online and the advertisers who are following them. And while “nobody should relish the demise of once-great titles,” it believes the decline of newspapers will “not be as harmful to society as some fear”:
Democracy, remember, has already survived the huge television-led decline in circulation since the 1950s. It has survived as readers have shunned papers and papers have shunned what was in stuffier times thought of as serious news. And it will surely survive the decline to come.
You might expect an online outfit like Crikey to support or even relish The Economist’s newspaper death spiral theory, but we don’t. Support it or relish it. Obviously newspapers are facing great challenges and in most cases are unlikely to see their circulations and profit lines grow. But that doesn’t necessarily mean an early death, more like a long period of ageing and decline.
Like other human members of the ageing population, the key issue for good newspapers will be how they manage their declining years. Pandering to younger readers by adding layer upon layer of celebrity gossip and dumbed-down editorial fodder may seem an obvious ploy to prop up circulations, but it’s likely to drive their serious readers off the edge at a much faster rate than by preserving editorial quality and intent.
The prospect of greying oldies tarting themselves up in youth garb is embarrassing. The sight of great newspapers tarting themselves is just as unedifying, and could be the trick that accelerates their demise.