Will News Reporting Die?

By Terence P. Jeffrey | May 3, 2012 | 6:33am EDT

Were you to show up at a football game and see one team had players who, on average, were 6 feet, 5 inches tall and weighed 240 pounds, and the other team had players who, on average, were 5 feet, 1 inch tall and weighed 120 pounds, you might hope the smaller team was very quick and very clever.

You also might expect to see a blowout.

Leaving aside for a moment the issue of liberal media bias, the government and the press in America size up against each other something like these two imaginary football teams. Only the disparity is far greater.

We live in a nation where the government is growing exponentially and the press is shrinking steadily.

In 1950, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 151,325,798 people in the United States. That year, according to the Office of Management and Budget, the federal government spent $42,562,000,000 — or about $281.26 for every person in the country ($2,503.76 in inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars)

Also in 1950 — according to data developed by Editor & Publisher and posted by the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) — there were 1,772 daily newspapers in the United States. These newspapers had a combined weekday circulation of 53,829,000 and combined ad revenues of $2,070,000,000.

In that America of six decades ago, there was one daily newspaper for every $24 million the federal government spent during the year, and every day there was one copy of a newspaper circulated for every 2.8 people.

By 2009, the balance of power had shifted dramatically. In that year, there were 307,439,000 people in the United States, and the federal government spent $3,517,677,000,000 — or about $11,441.87 for every person in the country.

Even when adjusted for inflation, the federal government spent more than 4.5 times as much per person in 2009 as it did in 1950.

As government exploded, newspapers began imploding. A net of 375 daily U.S. newspapers died between 1950 and 2009. The 1,397 dailies that remained in business had a combined weekday circulation of 46,278,000 and combined ad revenues of $27,564,000,000.

In the America of 2009, there was one daily newspaper for every $2.5 billion the federal government spent during the year, and every day there was one copy of a newspaper circulated for every 6.6 people.

The advertising revenue for the newspaper industry hit a historical peak of $49,435,000,000 in 2005. By 2011, according to the NAA, it had dropped to $23,941,000,000. Collectively, the nation's newspapers brought in about $25.5 billion less in ad revenue last year than they had just six years before.
That is a decline of almost 52 percent.

The number of people getting their news from newspaper websites has grown. In September 2010, according to the NAA, newspapers averaged 20.3 million visitors per day to their websites. In March 2012, they averaged by 25.3 million. But as people have moved from reading print papers to reading websites, the ad revenue has not followed them.

When newspaper ad revenue peaked at $49.4 billion in 2005, that revenue consisted of $47.4 billion from print ads and $2 billion from online ads. In 2011, when newspaper ad revenues were $23.94 billion, $20.69 billion came from print ads and only about $3.25 billion came from online ads.

The Pew Research Center last month published a report on the state of the news media in 2012. Noting that print revenues are declining much faster than online revenues are increasing, the report concluded: "Even if the newspaper industry can find a sustainable model online, moreover, those ratios mean newsrooms will be much smaller than they were a decade ago."

And even as the number of editors and reporters declines, the work they will be expected to do will grow.

"At the same time," said the Pew report, "the remaining editors and reporters are also being stretched further by the need to generate content suitable for smartphones and tablets and establishing a social media presence as well as putting out the print paper daily and feeding breaking news to websites."

What does this mean for America?

The Founding Fathers protected freedom of the press in the Constitution because they recognized that a free press was indispensable to a free nation. A central role of the press in our society ought to be to act as a check on the power of government — as an instrument by which the people can protect their liberty as individuals against intrusion by the state.

Conservatives correctly criticize the liberal media for often doing the opposite — protecting the power of the state at the expense of individual liberty.

But anyone who wants America to remain free cannot cheer the demise of the press as an institution. We need more reporters — especially reporters who love liberty and want to defend it — not fewer.

It may be a mistake for Americans to blithely accept the unexamined conclusion that the new electronic media, because of their speed and wide availability, will compensate for the virtual extinction of old-time reporters. Excellent reporting takes time and skills learned through experience — both of which require investment.

On the football field, a quicker and smarter team can sometimes beat a band of behemoths. But if, season after season, the behemoth grows and grows, it may eventually simply pound the little guys into oblivion.

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