What Future of Newspapers?

In the zany “contract” scene between Groucho and Chico Marx in “A Night at the Opera,” Groucho produces a pair of contracts that flow to the floor. He reads some supposed legalese— “party of the second part,” etc.—and Chico doesn’t like it. Groucho, finding the clause unnecessary, rips off the top of the contract.

“Now, I’ve got something you’re bound to like,” says Groucho.

“No, I don’t like it,” says Chico.

“Don’t like what?”

“Whatever it is.”

Rip! “Now the next part,” says Groucho.

And on and on—rip, rip, rip—until the contract is hardly larger than a postage stamp.*

In a variety of ways, the scene reminds me of what’s happening to newspapers and the newspaper business.

They, and it, are shrinking. That is, the papers themselves are gradually disappearing while the “news holes,” the spaces in which news is printed, seem to grow inexorably smaller. As with news holes in general, the space for longer, in-depth feature stories,often called “take-outs,” inevitably suffers the same fate. And those are the stories in which creative journalists have the room to provide a greater sense of mood, of scene, of character development, using, as it were, the traditional techniques of short stories but relying on pure facts.

In 1990, there were 1,611 daily newspapers in the United States; now there are 1,452. In 1990, circulation for those newspapers was 62.3 million; for the current newspapers, it’s 53.3 million. Since 2001, newsrooms have dropped from 56,393 employees to 54,134.Ad revenue across the board has dropped precipitously.

There used to be morning papers and afternoon papers. Now, there are, except in the rarest of cases, only morning papers. It appears that people seek the evening news from other media outlets.

When, to give just one example, I began working for the Minneapolis Tribune in 1965, it was the morning paper. The Minneapolis Star was the evening paper. Now there is one paper: the Minneapolis Star Tribune. A morning paper. And it appears no bigger than the Tribune did. Same for the other Twin Cities newspaper, directly across the Mississippi River: In 1965, the morning St. Paul Pioneer Press swallowed up the afternoon St. Paul Dispatch and discarded, five years later, the name Dispatch altogether. Most recently, in mid-2006, the Las Vegas Sun, one of the last of the afternoon papers, essentially vanished into a pullout section in the morning Las Vegas Review-Journal.

At The New York Times, where I’ve worked for 26 years, I have seen newsprint get larger, which substantially reduced the news holes. And then it was announced that this year, the paper itself, the one we hold in our hands, would lose a column in width, thinning the news holes even more. Then photographs, particularly those on the front page, or A-l, of the paper as well as those on the assorted “dress pages,” or front pages, of the various inside sections, from Sports to Arts and Leisure to Business, have ballooned. Increasingly, a single photograph has taken up more than half the space of that front page, essentially wiping out ever more words.

As circulation for newspapers diminishes, as the Web and the Internet—and, yes, that new-old standby television and video games, too—draw more and more readers, especially young readers, one gets the impression that the daily newspaper is a staggering dinosaur gasping its last few breaths.

In schools, one often hears teachers and professors lament that “kids don’t read anymore.”

Anecdotal evidence, however, seems to belie some of that pessimism.

In New York, for example, on any given subway train, one sees, yes, iPod listeners, but also young people reading books and magazines. Sometimes even newspapers! The same observations are true when flying in an airplane. There are still things one can get only from books and magazines and newspapers. That is, from print journalism—or from print, period.

One is heartened by new attempts, or new-old attempts, at starting newspapers. The Onion may be a tangential example, but, again, in New York, The Sun, only a few years old, has had some success. To be sure, USA Today, which some have disparaged as a McPaper (a reference to the fast-food McDonalds burger) for its simplistic prose style, has nonetheless influenced to some positive degree much of current journalism, even The New York Times, with its shorter stories, snappy graphics and myriad amalgamations of intriguing facts that we weren’t getting anywhere else.

And print people can be the best reporters as well as some of the best storytellers (remember, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, among others, began as newspaper writers). Television reporters rarely go where there may be no good camera opportunities. Print journalists can go almost everywhere, including and especially behind the scenes (though fast-breaking use of online reporting has opened another door for print journalism). And how do you do the daily crossword puzzle on a laptop? (I guess there are ways, but they can’t possibly have the same homey sense of conundrum).

While we will never see the day when there were, say, 10 or more newspapers in New York City, as there were in the 1920s and ‘30s—there are five now: The Times, The Post, The Daily News, Newsday and The Sun—my crystal ball shows that there will always be some newspapers.

That “contract” scene between Groucho and Chico ends when, after everything is settled, Chico says he’s unhappy with the last provision.

“That’s in every contract,” Groucho protests. “That’s what they call a sanity clause.”

“You can’t fool me,” says Chico. “There ain’t no Santy Claus.”

And while I, too, have my doubts about the actual existence of “Santy Claus,” I see no end on the horizon of, among other print staples, dependent or independent clauses. There just won’t be anywhere near the number we once had.

* “The Marx Brothers at the Movies,” by Paul D. Zimmerman and Burt Goldblatt (G.P. Putnam’s and Sons, 1968).

About the Author

Ira Berkow

Ira Berkow has been a sports columnist and feature writer for The New York Times for 26 years. He shared a Pulitzer Prize for his feature story, The Minority Quarterback, in the series How Race is Lived in America.

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