Newspapers Can't Compete

There is something missing in most analyses of how the newspaper industry is faltering over the past 20 years in the US.

Let's go back to the 1950s. Television came with lots of entertainment and news, all for `free' once you bought your set and antenna and hooked it up within range of a local station. By contrast, movies cost you every time you wanted to see one -- plus you had to leave home and reach a moviehouse (and for the growing numbers of people who moved to the suburbs, this meant driving to the city and paying for parking). Television grew and movies failed. Television brought in more and more money and profits. These profits could be sunk into (relatively) unprofitable arms like the networks' and local channels' news departments. Watching the Nightly News was free and what is more, it was effortless, compared to poring through all the sections of the evening newspaper.

The evening dailies fell and were largely gone by when? -- early 1970s or so?

Once the evening dailies closed up, the morning dailies had a monopoly grip on their market. In the major metro areas, enough people still card to read papers to support 2 or more dailies, but in the smaller markets, one newspaper and only one remained.

In the olden days of multiple dailies, newspapers competed. They competed with one another. In the continuing give-and-take of this competition, newspapers were always looking for ways to please their readers and peddle more papers. This was a matter not only of getting more-popular features, but always studying and learning how better to compete.

But once a paper got its market all to itself, it no longer had to compete head-to-head with other papers. Instead the competition turned slantwise, against radio and television news. And slantwise competition is very different from head-to-head competition. In slantwise competition you simply focus on what makes your offering different from the competition. Hone your forte and let the others hone theirs. And in the case of television news, which had replaced the evening papers, the two competitors could compete on 2 fronts primarily:

    1. time difference
    2. space difference

Television gave a quick rundown of what happened, earlier today. Newspapers, with more space, gave a more detailed rundown of what happened, yesterday.

  • (There remains one other distinction between the 2 media: television wants, and even needs, to get everything on camera; the news heads on television news disdain what they cannot film. Print news, on the other hand, makes no such distinctions: everything there is words alone. This makes it possible for newspapers to report on what has not and cannot be filmed. Investigations are far easier for print media to cover than they are for television.)

The monopoly newspapers unlearned how to compete -- in general. They stood alone and wielded outsize influence in their markets and their states, playing kingmaker. And all the extras features in a newspaper -- the sections that had once been highly regarded as the focus of a paper's competitive edge -- were allowed to go stale. No longer was the keen humorist a highly-prized addition to a paper's staff. The comics section was printed smaller, smaller, smaller. This meant that the continuing comic, the soap opera and adventure strip, fell out of favor, and the simple gag strip dominated.

When the internet came along and offered news with the immediacy of live radio and tv, but in print with all the aspects of the newspaper, the monopoly papers let it happen. Many wished the future away. Others proudly boasted of their tradition going back a century or more and proclaimed ``We will always be here because we always have been here.''

They didn't compete with the internet; they no longer knew how.

They still don't know how.


Last built: Mon, Mar 17, 2014 at 9:41 AM

By SWP Pond, Wednesday, August 14, 2013 at 9:49 AM. Still diggin!