I began working for newspapers 20 years ago this week, when the Boston Herald
hired me as its chief editorial writer, a job I enjoyed for six years before
moving to The Boston Globe as a columnist in 1994. A career in journalism was
not something I had ever envisioned: When I was in second grade I announced
that I was going to be a judge when I grew up. In time I earned a law degree,
passed the bar exam, and joined a large law firm only to discover that
lawyering wasn't my cup of tea, after all. But even though I never became a
judge, I have had the good fortune of being paid to render opinions, and the
even better fortune of doing so in the pages of a newspaper.
One of the first things I learned in this business was how eager some people
are to express their disdain for it. When I was at the Herald, people regularly
told me that it was a paper they refused to read; in the years since, plenty of
others have made sure to tell me the same thing about the Globe. As I write
these words, the newest e-mail in my inbox announces irately: "I won't use the
NY Times to wrap fish in any more (stinks up the fish)."
Well, sneering at the daily fishwrap is a venerable American tradition. The
first newspaper published in the colonies Publick Occurrences appeared in
Boston on Sept. 25, 1690, and was promptly suppressed by the authorities, who
denounced its "sundry doubtful and uncertain reports." More than a century
later, Thomas Jefferson declared that "the man who never looks into a newspaper
is better informed than he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is
nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors."
Today's legions of press critics say nothing that hasn't been said before
including by members of the press. (In 1919, H. L. Mencken described "the
average American newspaper, even of the so-called better sort" as "ignorant . .
. unfair and tyrannical . . . devious, hypocritical, disingenuous, deceitful,
pharisaical, pecksniffian, fraudulent, slippery, unscrupulous, perfidious,
lewd, and dishonest.") Newspapers have always drawn fire, often deservedly. But
they have also always drawn readers. Now, increasingly, they don't.
Like most Americans over 40, I grew up in a home in which a newspaper was read
every day. When my brother and sister shared a paper route in the 1970s, they
delivered to virtually every house in the neighborhood. That is no longer the
norm. The percentage of Americans who read a paper every day has fallen from
around 70 percent in 1972 to 35 percent today. Among younger adults those
under 30 newspaper-reading has become almost an eccentricity: Just 16
percent read a paper daily. Industrywide, newspaper circulation has been
dropping for 20 years. What's worse, the rate of decline seems to be speeding
Nobody thinks this is just a temporary setback. The disappearance of
traditional newspapers is increasingly regarded as inevitable, if not already a
fait accompli. "Who Killed the Newspaper?" asked The Economist in a cover story
last year. Note the past tense.
The conventional answer, of course, is that the Internet is the culprit.
Readers by the millions have migrated to the Web, where news and information
are typically supplied for free. In their wake, newspaper subscriptions have
evaporated, advertisers have decamped, and print revenues have plummeted.
But is the rise of the Internet really the cause of the exodus from newspapers?
When I signed on 20 years ago, the slide in readership was already underway.
Daily circulation was already falling. The absence of a newspaper habit among
younger readers was already prompting concern. Today the crisis may be more
acute, but the symptoms appeared before the World Wide Web did.
So if the Internet isn't at the root of newspapers' woes, what is? I nominate
not the computer screen, but the TV screen.
Newspapers have been undone by the rise of television, which emphasizes
stimulation over substance and fast-paced imagery over focused thought. A
generation raised on TV mindlessness is a generation less equipped to read a
newspaper and consequently less interested in doing so. It has always struck
me as crazy that newspapers devote so much ink to television, tempting readers
to put down the paper and turn on the tube, from which so many of them don't
Then again, who knows? "I have been in the newspaper business since 1964," the
celebrated political columnist Molly Ivins said at Harvard's Kennedy School of
Government last fall, shortly before her death in January, "and during that
entire time I have been told it's a dying industry."
Is it possible that, against all odds and expectations, the reports of the
death of American newspapers will turn out to have been greatly exaggerated?
Ask me again in 20 years.