By Dr. Sander L. Diamond, professor of history
We have come a long way since the kid next door delivered the morning paper on his bike and men with cigars in their mouths stood on the street corners of large cities yelling “Extra, Extra… read all about it!”
In the 1920s, we got our news from several newspapers each day, morning and evening editions. In the 1930s, radio was king with hourly news reports and bulletins, but newspapers were still the way most of us got the so-called “Big Picture.”
The arrival of the Television Age changed our news habits, and TV news came of age in the 1960s. Nearly every American over 65 can remember where they were when they heard “We interrupt this program to bring you a report from Dallas… President Kennedy has been shot.” Six years later, we watched Neil Armstrong put his foot on the moon, with Walter Cronkite standing in as the nation’s teacher. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War ground on and it was TV images that turned the tide of public opinion. Not only were we getting more and more of our news from TV, it was also in real time. The names of newscasters were pushing aside the names of newspaper editors in our daily conversations.
With the advent of cable television and CNN in the 1990s, TV news expanded and today we are a nation of news junkies, hard-wired to our PCs, a dazzling array of hand-held devices, our over-sized TVs, and stations beamed into our cars from orbs above the Earth. Unless we disconnect, it is hard to escape the 24/7 news cycle and the numerous talking heads.
The print media is in sharp decline and many people fear that it will go the way of the typewriter, a fear which is exaggerated. One way or the other, the major papers, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, will survive and hold on to a dedicated readership. What’s more, highly specialized papers are doing quite well. The influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants and millions of others has been a boon to the foreign-language press.
But the truth is, challenges from our electronic world do not bode well for the print media. In the first half of 2009, sales of daily papers fell 10 percent and over the next two years the decline has accelerated. Total newspaper circulation has been falling for a decade. In 2009, 44 million papers were sold each day, fewer than at any time since the 1940s. Many papers have reduced their dailies from five to three days.
However, we do not need statistics to understand what is happening. If you sit in an airport, ride a bus, visit a coffee shop, or travel on a train or subway, you can’t help but notice that the younger generation is glued to a hand-held device while the older generation is reading the paper. But even among this latter group, many have made the transition to the world of cyberspace.
And while our top papers will be in print for years to come, second and third tier papers are in deep trouble. Just as Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type press marked the beginning of the end for legions of scribes, the arrival of the Cyber Age is a harbinger of the gradual decline of the print media, both newspapers and news magazines.
In years to come, we may lament the decline of having an old-fashioned newspaper delivered to our doorstep and picking up another paper on the way to work. When you read a printed paper, you focus on it, relax and reflect. There is no temptation to turn to email, Facebook or visit the endless sites at our disposal. The crossword puzzle and word games are always fun, and when you read the top story, you make the call, not a talking head.