Prepare yourself for the demise of your daily newspaper. It’s going the way of the typewriter.
No, not next week. This is not a breaking new story. Your local newspaper might hang on for years, and newspapers in some form are sure to survive in some form for decades.
But a new study on the reading habits of news consumers conducted by the Pew Research Center paints a clear, demographic picture of the demise of newspapers along with the steady decline of local TV news.
Technology and the marketplace is doing to them what it did to the typewriter.
If you’re old enough, you remember the typewriter. It’s how most people formally put words on paper before personal computers and printers came along. The old technology has now become a collector’s item.
“In the age of smartphones, social media, and hacking fears, vintage typewriters that once gathered dust in attics and basements are attracting a new generation of fans across the United States,” the Associated Press reported in a story last year about the “resurgence” of interest in the machines.
AP reporter Russell Contreras insisted this wasn’t all just a fad, but the reality was buried deeper in his story:
“It’s almost impossible to gauge recent typewriter sales. Almost all of the original manufacturers are out of business or have been bought out and become different companies. Moonachie, New Jersey-based Swintec appears to be one of the last typewriter makers, selling translucent electronic machines largely to jails and prisons.”
IBM is one of the companies that got out of the business of manufacturing typewriters. In 1975 its Selectric, electric typewriter accounted for about 75 percent of typewriter sales in the U.S., according to Reuters. Those typewriters cost about $5,000 in 2018 dollars.
Only 11 years later, “as personal computers and daisy-wheel printers began to dominate,” the Selectric brand was retired,” says an IBM history. The Selectric was replaced by the Wheelwriter, but it lasted less than a decade as typewriter sales suffocated beneath an avalanche of computers.
Computers were faster, neater and easier to use than typewriters. A typing error could be fixed with a quick backspace, delete and rewrite. Draft documents could be edited and rewritten as they were read without need for retyping a sheet of print smeared with handwritten editing changes.
Computers made it easier and more convenient for people to type what they wanted to type, and so typewriters died.
The internet now makes it easier and more convenient for people to read what they want to read.
As a result, where went typewriters so too are headed newspapers, the PEW examination of the fast-changing world of news makes clear. The Pew study has so far mainly attracted attention because it found more Americans now get their news from social media than from newspapers.
Given that social media is hero to some and bogeyman to others, its rise was the obvious big news for most journalists.
“Social Media Top Newspapers as a News Source” the AARP, the organization representing the bastion of continuing newspaper readers, reported online. But therein might be the important part of this story that got the least attention.
Far fewer than half – 39 percent to be exact – of Americans age 65 or old still get their news from newspapers, according to Pew. That’s the AARP crowd, and they are the core demographic for news on-paper.
AARP, for those who don’t know, was found as the American Association of Retired Persons but now just goes by AARP. Most of today’s AARP-qualified Americans grew up reading newspapers and still cling to the tradition. Habits are hard to break, and yet they are breaking.
More important, however, are the habits not forming. Behind the old folks, the market for newspapers is fading fast, according to the Pew numbers. The people who would be the newspaper readers of tomorrow just aren’t there.
Among Americans 50 to 64, only 18 percent now get their news from newspapers. That falls to 8 percent among those age 30 to 49. And back in the 18 to 29 age group, the number drops to 2 percent.
Pew didn’t survey teens and pre-teens, but that group surely goes below 2 percent. And behind them, well, a lot of young children now grow up playing with an iPad or similar notebook.
They are part of a new Jetson generation of Americans. The iPad is their tradition. By the time they reach their teens in high school, newspapers could be something they first learn about in history class.
The market realities recorded in the Pew numbers cannot be ignored. Local daily newspapers as Americans have long known them are destined to die. It’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when.
What happens afterward is the big question.
A multi-media world
“The medium is the message” as the late philosopher Marshall McLuhan observed long ago, and the new, online medium is playing havoc with the world of news in all sorts of ways.
Love newspapers or hate them, they do, or did, have a history of adhering to certain factual standards. They do, or did, try to check information before publishing it.
They weren’t, and aren’t, perfect. The journalists who worked for them did, and still do, tend to lean left. They make plenty of mistakes, too, because in a business where dozens of decisions go into the construction of every story mistakes are inevitable.
But newspapers have long had rules. Reporters usually didn’t, and don’t, make things up, though that happens. See the sad case of Mike Ward at the Houston Chronicle.
The thing is, Ward lost his job.
The Chronicle investigated his creation of “sources.” It then retracted stories in which apparently non-existent people played critical roles. Newspaper reporters still risk their careers by making things up.
Failing to verify information is a different matter. The online demand for news now – right now – has altered the dynamic.
What were once rumors that needed to be checked, now sometimes make it quickly into the news online as an Anchorage fiasco with a moose calf reportedly being born in the parking lot of a Lowes hardware store made perfectly clear in 2016.
And forget about a journalist of today reading a press release from a government agency, observing “that can’t be right,” and holding the rewrite to confirm facts. That almost never happens anymore. If the information is in a handout from a government agency, it’s alright even if it’s wrong.
Then there’s social media.
Social media, by allowing anyone to become a reporter, is a great contribution to democracy.
Social media, by allowing anyone to become a propagandist (that’s the original name for what is now called “fake news”), is a threat to democracy.
Twenty percent of the news Americans consume these days comes from social media, according to Pew. Another 33 percent come from various “news” websites, and there’s a great deal of quality variation among those.
YAHOO! News and Google News – which mimic on-paper newspapers in their large-scale cataloging of news in a menu from which readers can make choices – are number one and two in the news business, according to a national ranking service.
If you read Google News, you know that you never know what you might get there. Letters to the editors of newspapers used to regularly pop up as “news” stories; the website seems to have gotten better (or worse) over the past year by increasingly linking to news reports from mainstream television and newspaper websites, which usually, at least, rewrite the government press releases correctly.
There is, however, no quality control.
Meanwhile, Americans overall still tend to get most of their news – 49 percent – from TV, which has historically been defined as superficial. On a national level, the cable versions of news have the time to go beyond sound-bite news, but largely spend their time arguing over politics.
Whether at Fox News right, MSNBC left, or CNN still trying to figure out where it is, there is a lot of time spent on the cable news shows arguing about who is right and who is wrong on issues that have no real right or wrong.
Bombastic President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has become a focal point for all of them. The news hounds seem able to argue over almost anything he Tweets.
How much of this is the fault of journalists and how much the fault of market demand is something that could surely inspire talking heads to spend hours yelling at each other.
Which came first? The news that created the demand (the chicken) or the demand that created the news (the egg)?
The age divide
Could this all be turning off the younger generation? Not only have younger Americans deserted newspapers, they’re turning away from TV news, too. Only 16 percent of those in the 18 to 29 age group report they now get news from television.
Social media is the news leader among the under-30 crowd at 36 percent. This says a lot about a significant change in news consumption on the verge of becoming a radical change as Americans age.
Thirty-six percent of the 30 to 49 age group report getting news from TV, but that’s topped by the 42 percent who get their news from news websites. TV doesn’t start to power its way onto the scene until those over age 50 – the people who grew up watching TV – enter the picture.
How these demographic trends are going to move through time will be interesting, but it’s unlikely the 36 percent of people now 30 to 49 years old who watch TV news is going to jump to 65 percent as they age into the 50 to 64 age group.
Likewise for those 18 to 29 years old who appear to have turned to their “friends” in social media for much of their news. Why?
It could be they don’t trust “the man.” Or it could be they’re only reading the news suggested by their “friends” as the news, like so much else in this country, goes increasingly tribal and fragments into niches: arts news, entertainment news, business news, political news, sports news with a long list of specialized niches within the niche, environmental news, climate news, celebrity news, science news, and more – much, much more.
The list is almost endless and so convoluted it’s becoming hard to even define what constitutes “news.” It’s everything, and it’s nothing. And the picture is only likely to get more confused going forward, especially on the local level.
Local newspapers and TV stations used to sort and catalogue important community events. As markets have shifted and revenues have declined, they are doing less and less of that, and the trend lines clearly point toward ever less until those news organizations fade away.
What exactly will emerge to take their place remains to be seen, but something will emerge. The human thirst for information and entertainment is limitless. It pulled us out of the cave and pushed us into space.
We want to know things. And, sadly, we don’t want to know things.
We have a bad tendency to confirmation bias. Many of us tend to collect friends who confirm those biases. As a species, we have a frightening history of whole tribes of people coalescing around shared biases.
Such biases are at the heart of our many wars. How the changing media landscape will affect those biases nobody knows, but we’re about to find out. We’re already finding out.