The death of American newspapers

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2010-05-26 09:34
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In a couple of days I will be going home to visit friends in the US They will certainly ask me why I'm writing for Chinese newspapers. What I will tell them is that I like getting paid, have about the same degree of freedom to write what I want, and would like to be associated with an industry that will be around for a while.

Newspapers in the US are dying. Between 2003-2007 when I lived in California, I had over a hundred op-eds published in at least a half dozen newspapers. I can count on one hand the times I was paid for what I wrote. I'm not bitter. That's just the way it was and is.

The Associated Press reported in late April that circulation at US newspapers was continuing to drop severely, as it has been for quite some time.

Figures released by the ABC show average weekday circulation fell 8.7 percent in the six months that ended March 31, compared with the same period a year earlier. Sunday circulation fell 6.5 percent. Those dismal numbers are an improvement on last fall's numbers, which were down 10.6 percent and 7.5 percent respectively.

Of the top national 25 dailies, only The Wall Street Journal managed to record a year-over-year gain, and the meager 0.5 percent rise there was attributable to online subscriptions.

Newspapers big declines in print paid circulation were slightly offset by online viewership but advertising revenue online is a fraction of print.

A 2010 report from the PEW Project for Excellence in Journalism, "The State of the News Media," found that American newspaper advertising revenues fell 43 percent over the three year period from 2007-2009.

PEW also reports that there is little evidence that journalism online has found a sustaining revenue model. Seventy-nine percent of online news consumers say they rarely if ever have clicked on an online ad.

The reaction of many newspapers to declining circulation and revenue has been to raise subscription and news stand prices while cutting staff. In other words, charge more for less.

Roughly 13,500 jobs for full-time, newsroom professionals were cut between 2007-2009.

Declining revenues and viewership are problems for American newspapers, but the more critical problem is that Americans do not trust their news sources.

A 2008 Harris Interactive online poll of 2,302 US adults found that 54 percent of Americans "tend not to trust" the media.

In late 2009, PEW reported that American's confidence in the press had hit the lowest point in two decades. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (63 percent) said that news stories are "often inaccurate." Seventy percent said that news organizations try to cover up mistakes.

Twenty-five years ago fewer than half of Americans (45 percent) said news organizations were politically biased. Today, by greater than two-to-one (60 percent to 26 percent), more say the press is biased.. The percentage of people with a favorable view of daily newspapers has declined by 16 percent since 1985.

The fact that more people are turning to online news is also disturbing because 80 percent of the online news audience says that news stories are often inaccurate.

For most Americans, the concept of a free press implies newspapers wholly independent from government influence. What that means today is that US newspaper reporters are free to starve and free to be distrusted.

The author is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism. He can be contacted at