Is the news on paper soon to be doomed?
In 1977, the year after the Bicentennial, the old Sunday Bulletin Magazine assigned the late Adolph Katz and me to produce an issue full of predictions of what the world would be like 100 years hence, in 2077.
We interviewed experts on all sorts of activities, such as transit, television, crime, education, farming, automobiles, business, architecture, religion and about 30 other topics. We asked what they thought their field of expertise would be like in a century.
One of the topics was newspapers.
I thought of that because of the current uproar in the newspaper business. The Pew Research scrutinizers report that daily newspaper circulation is about half what it was 20 years ago. Worry-warts are prophesying the demise of print journalism as it’s been known for generations. I looked up that 41-year-old prediction to see how it holds up today. The journalism expert we consulted was B. Dale Davis, then executive editor of the Philadelphia Bulletin.
At that time, Davis was overseeing a massive Bulletin conversion to computerized writing and editing. Writers were struggling with those newfangled things called computer terminals that had replaced typewriters.
Atop a partition in the newsroom was a socket with a 60watt bulb. When the computer system crashed, as it frequently did, that bulb would begin to flash and writers would rush to save their work. Things are a bit different now.
Davis’s predictions weren’t bad, given that email had barely begun, the internet was in use only by a few academics and Wikipedia was nearly 25 years in the future.
“I think we’re coming to the period when you will have a device in your home, either linked to a television set or a special kind of receiver, on which you will get the newspaper delivered right to your home,” Davis prophesized.
“Probably, it will appear on a screen,” he said, “but parts that the reader wants to retain will be printed out at the touch of a button.”
The Bulletin’s circulation then was about 560,000 daily, usually 64 pages or more, and the Inquirer’s 408,000. Today, the Bulletin is 36 years gone, and the Inquirer’s circulation is about 466,000.
Davis assumed that newspapers might be replaced by entirely new electronic media but with the same content. News is the same old stuff. It’s the paper that would be replaced.
This time, it may happen.
I say this time because in the late 1920s, the advent of radio caused predictions that newspapers were passé. In the late 1940s, it was television that would wipe out the papers.
Newspaper publishers were quick to buy radio stations and later to found television stations. Now, newspaper companies are putting their products online. The product is information, not sheets of paper.
There seems to be something about written material online, on a computer screen, that demands brevity. Even 500 words or so, such as this column, seem short in a newspaper but long on a screen.
This kind of article became called a column because it was once usually one column long. The typical full-size newspaper page 100 years ago was eight 2-inch columns wide. In typical type, with a small headline, a column would be about 1,000 words.
If the good old newspaper is doomed, in this Twitterish age of 280-character items, will we soon no longer see 3,000 character columns like this one?
The Pew Research scrutinizers report that daily newspaper circulation is about half what it was 20 years ago.