The Fading Newspaper

By | Updated April 19, 2016 7:20 PM UTC

The American newspaper business is fading and the civic discourse it has led is being reshaped. Newsrooms are shrinking and most papers are printing less news. The industry’s revenue has fallen by more than a third since 2005, its best year, when sales reached $60.2 billion. Newspapers employed roughly a third fewer professionals in 2013 than they did at their peak in 1989. In other ways, journalism is booming. There’s been a proliferation of online news sites, which employed 5,000 people in 2014. And the explosion in social media means news circulates ever more widely. Even so, online readers are less valuable to advertisers than print readers. The industry’s business model is in flux. So are its principles and practices.


The Situation

Traditional newspapers are struggling to find ways to survive as print subscribers evaporate. In February, the U.K.’s Independent newspaper announced it would end print publication in March. A month earlier, the owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and donated the publications to a nonprofit media institute. The Wall Street Journal closed loopholes to its paywall, while the Toronto Star ended its paid digital subscriptions. Prominent papers like the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune are pushing digital subscription plans in the hope that readers will pay to preserve traditional news gathering. At the Times, more than 1 million readers have signed up, allowing it to post profits despite declining ad revenue. About 40 percent of U.S. papers charge online, but they compete with digital-only news outlets without paywalls such as BuzzFeed, which created a business model based on ads made to resemble the site’s own content. The New York Times and other newspaper sites now have similar “native ad” programs. These trends are echoed in Europe and Australia, though in Asia, newspapers are holding up nicely.

The Background

Newspapers have been under assault from other news providers since the age of radio. Nonetheless,newspapers grew in size and importance, fueled by classified advertising sales. The era was epitomized by the New York Times’s publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and the Washington Post’s seminal reporting on the Watergate break-in. When the commercial Internet took off in the late 1990s, however, news became codified by interest, and partisan sites like the Drudge Report and the Huffington Post grew popular. Challenging the idea of political and ideological neutrality as a framework for news, point-of-view reporting has inspired a breed of journalists who brandish their affiliations openly. The rise of Craigslist, which sopped up classified ads, hit print news hard. Local newspapers have withered and many have died. One result is less government coverage: The number of full-time reporters in U.S. statehouses fell 35 percent between 2003 and 2014.

The Argument

The decline of newspapers has some scholars wondering whether something essential to democracy is being lost. Newspapers still conduct important investigations on everything from police shootings to failing school systems. The Boston Globe’s 2002 investigation into sexual abuse by clergy in the Catholic Church and the subsequent cover-ups has become more widely known through the film “Spotlight.” But the spectacular revelations in 2013 about the U.S. government’s electronic surveillance of telephone and Internet records arose from a leak by a government worker to Glenn Greenwald, an independent journalist who has been a fierce critic of the U.S. government. Greenwald says his openness about his opinions makes him a more reliable source of information than newspapers that affect impartiality. Others call for more blending of “old testament” and “new testament” journalism. There’s also new thinking about how to finance journalism. While in many countries, the people who pay for any access to news has been holding steady at about 10 percent, the share of those readers who have news subscriptions grew from 43 percent in 2013 to 59 percent in 2014. Revelations that many ad views are faked by software has sent some advertisers back to news sites in search of human readers who will spend time with their offerings. And donors have rallied to support nonprofit investigative sites like the Marshall Project and ProPublica, citing news’s crucial role in a functioning democracy.


The Reference Shelf

  • The Newspaper Association of America has data on readership and revenue going back to 1950.
  • Ken Doctor, a newspaper analyst and author, blogs about the future of the newspaper industry.
  • Riptide, “an oral history of the epic collision between journalism and digital technology,” is sponsored by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
  • Pew Research Center’s newspaper reports.
  • The Institute for Nonprofit News includes more than 100 organizations.
  • Martin Baron, the former top editor at the Boston Globe, describes the making of the film “Spotlight” (and what it’s like to be portrayed by Liev Schreiber).

First published Jan. 16, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Gerry Smith in New York at

To contact the editors responsible for this QuickTake:
Jonathan Landman at
Anne Cronin at