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Wednesday, November 24, 2004

These are not bright times for newspapers. If Watergate in the early 1970s was the apogee of newspaper power, the crowning triumph of investigative journalism, then we are most certainly at the nadir.

Never mind the Jayson Blair scandal, or the failure of the news media to mount significant skepticism about the war in Iraq. The clearest sign of the declining influence of newspapers is expressed in hard numbers, in the trailing indicator of dollars and cents, and more immediately, in the leading indicator of circulation figures.

Circulation continues to erode at newspapers across the country. Not only are publishers scared -- even more worrisome, they are not scared enough. A friend of mine, in his late 20s, works for a newspaper in a fast-growing metropolitan area. And yet circulation continues to decline. The top brass at his newspaper chain are demanding to know why.

It's not just that one newspaper. Look at the Washington Post, where, in an effort to boost circulation, the top editor is ordering reporters to write less news. (It is revealing of the mindset of most elite journalists these days that their chief objection to this plan was that a black man was not asked to be the one to butcher stories. That honor is left to a white fellow.)

Look, also, at the proud French institution, Le Monde. The New Yorker carried an excellent article by Adam Gopnik in its Nov. 15 issue on whether Le Monde will chase after scandal or will, as French business journalist Bernard Poulet puts it, put forth a "daily drip of trustworthy competence and reliability." Poulet continued:

If we admire the Financial Times or The Economist or the New York Times or the Guardian, it isn't because they break story after story or make one man fall after another. It is because day in, day out, week in, week out, they promise a level of intelligent commentary and credible information. It may be that model is finished, for complex reasons, or that it won't work. But this model, of the newspaper as inquisitor and moral arbiter -- that won't work, either, not in the long run, as we see.

And so Le Monde, too, is struggling to remain relevant as a 300,000-circulation daily. If it fails to do so, it fears an unsavory future. Gopnik writes:

One need only look across the Channel at the London papers to see the fate that both sides (in the dispute over Le Monde's voice) fear and are seeking to avoid. Twenty-five years ago, the Times of London stood right beside Le Monde as a beacon of absolute, if slightly starchy, rectitude. Now it is just another Murdoch paper, stuffed full of color photographs and recipes and gossip about Posh and Becks, a tabloid in content and, as of last week, in form. That is the most probable fate of a serious newspaper at the beginning of the millennium, and it would be the end of something crucial.

The end of something crucial. It should be noted that my friend at the shrinking newspaper in a fast-growing city is part of the newspaper's online operations. He thinks the Internet will prove to be newspapers' salvation. Indeed, online advertising in the second quarter was $2.4 billion, up 40 percent from a year ago and beyond even the heights of the dot com bubble, the Internet Advertising Bureau has reported. And there's plenty of room for growth: the Internet attracts just 4 percent of total U.S. ad spending, or about one sixth of what newspapers now take in, in total.

As someone steeped in the world of weblogging and Internet publishing, I think this money will flow to newspapers only as part of a massive transformation of their editorial mission. In particular, I am hopeful newspapers will spend less time duplicating one another's work as part of a sort of pack journalism and more time finding new corners of the society, business and the government to write about.

But there are pragmatic, immediate steps newspapers can take. Many people, it turns out, have stopped taking the paper simply because the copies pile up. The subscription model doesn't work for them. They'd still like to read the paper, I believe, when it suits them, be it on an airplane, on the subway or at Starbucks.

But it is awfully hard to make an impulse buy. When one is standing in front of a New York Times or Wall Street Journal rack, one is not likely to have the four or five quarters required. On Sunday, such a predicament is all but guaranteed.

Newspapers need to partner with mobile phone companies to allow newspaper purchases over wireless handsets. Each rack should have its own telephone number. Call the number from your cell phone, and a computer server at the newspaper headquarters will bill your telephone account. Then it will send a signal to the rack, through a pager or mobile phone network, to pop open. You grab your paper and go.

It has been decades since newspaper companies have considered such practical concerns as how inconvenient it can be to purchase their product. As my friend in newspapers has noticed, they kvetch about declining circulation but do not, for the most part, recognize it as the full blown crisis that it is.

It is time they started to concern themselves with the basics of their business -- what to write and how to sell it -- once again.

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