The Quickening Decline of Newspapers

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The flagging economy has accelerated the decline of the American newspaper industry. Already suffering from waning readership and declining ad sales, several major newspapers are now projected to fold or go exclusively on-line before the end of the year. Those papers include such stalwarts of the news business as the Miami Herald, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Daily News.

If the fall of the newspaper business is inevitable, the question is: what does that mean for society?

The Internet allows for practically infinite discovery, but it invariably fractures us into subgroups of subgroups based around personal interests rather than the historical connections provided by physical community. Newspapers, on the other hand, promote those traditional connections, giving the community a common source of information and providing a base of commentary and knowledge not tied to any specific subgroup.

In a world with only the Internet, we’d all be looking at different content (radically different, at times). What does that do to our sense of unity and our ability to find common ground with our neighbors? Will we cease to be meaningfully connected through physical community and reorganize ourselves in communities based on specific interests? Am I not already more invested in the readers and writers of this blog than I am in the people living ten miles from me? And, what’s the consequence of that?

Nothing foreseeable is going to stop the decline of newspapers. In some ways, this is like the transition from horse-and-buggy to the automobile. At first, cars seemed like just a faster, more convenient version of something that already existed. But, eventually, cars transformed our society, restructuring communities and irrevocably changing how we relate to one another. The Internet is like that. It’s not just replacing newspapers, it’s changing the ways in which we connect, communicate and build relationships.

For me, there’s some angst over the idea of losing my daily paper. I hope there will always be a place for the printed word in our culture. But economic crises have a habit of making clear what is and isn’t essential to a culture. Newspapers seem headed for obsolescence. What that will mean in the long-term remains to be seen.