Is the news on pa­per soon to be doomed?

The Review - - OPINION - Jim Smart Visit columnist Jim Smart’s web­site at jamess­mart­sphiladel­phia.com.

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.

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