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Donald Ritchie, author of Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps, Our Constitution, and The Congress of the United States: A Student Companion, has been Associate Historian of the United States Senate for more than three decades. In the post below he looks at the fall of newspapers.

In her end-of-the-year column, The Washington Post’s ombudsman, Deborah Howell, reviewed some dismal statistics: since she started in her job in 2005, the Post’s daily circulation has declined by 45,000. At the same time, the Post’s web site registered a 15% increase in viewers. A decade earlier, when the Post first launched its online news service, publisher Donald Graham summed up the imperative in three words: “classifieds, classifieds, classifieds,” but the drift toward news on the Internet has drained away larger retail advertising as well. Newspapers across the country have reported similar slumps in circulation and advertising revenue.

The current plight of the daily newspaper mirrors earlier cycles in the news business. Newspapers were a booming business–with racks of competing papers in most larger cities–when a radio station in New York ran the first paid commercial in 1922. It was a ten-minute program promoting a housing development in Jackson Heights, Queens. Newspapers did not take radio seriously as a competitor until the Great Depression of the 1930s, when their advertising revenue dropped while radio’s share rose. Advertisers sensed that the hard times had stimulated the public’s appetite for radio news. “Instead of seeking diversion from his troubles, as you’d expect,” one radio programmer marveled, “the average American seems to hanker for bad news.” The American Newspaper Publishers Association responded by pressuring the wire services–Associated Press and United Press–to deny their news reports to radio news programs, a an embargo that encouraged radio networks to develop their own news gathering operations.

The arrival of television after World War II undermined both newspapers and radio. Until then, afternoon newspapers had been the most profitable by far. Advertisers poured money into them in order to reach commuters on their way home from work. Then people stopped buying papers and started tuning into the evening TV news broadcasts. As ad revenue fell, afternoon newspapers either switched to morning editions or went out of business. By 1963, advertisers were reading surveys showed that more Americans relied on TV than newspapers as their chief source of news, and were allotting their funds accordingly. Some major newspapers survived principally by buying television stations whose profits compensated for the papers’ lost revenue.

Radio suffered from the same drain from television. The networks ran their radio and TV productions as separate and competing entities. As more advertisers turned to television, radio slashed its rates and promoted itself as the new low-priced medium. That approach failed to turn the tide, and in 1956 CBS radio reported its first unprofitable year ever, dropping into a seven-year slump. By 1960 radio revenue had fallen 75 percent from its peak in 1948. Radio canceled its soap operas and serials, and many stations turned to 24-hour news for low-cost programming.

Listeners, viewers, and readers have proved themselves notoriously fickle in their loyalties to established news media, and younger generations have led the way in switching to new media. Their purchasing power in turn attracts advertisers. History suggests that despite the quality of its product the Post’s circulation statistics will continue to sink, and that the Internet will both dominate and change the news business significantly.

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