Is it too early for a newspaper industry obituary — or too late for prayers?
With journalism degree in hand, I embarked on my newspaper career in 1986 at the News Tribune in Jefferson City, the state capital of Missouri. I was quite eager to put my newly minted journalism skills to work at a “real world” newspaper after paying my dues at the University of Kansas’ student newspaper.
One day after I started my job as a reporter in Jefferson City, one of the biggest news stories of my life shocked the nation: The Challenger space shuttle exploded in midair, killing all seven crew members on board. I, like so many other Americans, was stunned by the disaster.
For me, though, it was more than a national tragedy; it was a stark reminder of why I chose a career in journalism.
I yearned to tell stories, to inform the public, to chronicle events. The Challenger tragedy underscored my dedication to a career in the newspaper business — a business that now is in the rearview mirror for me along with thousands of other Americans.
New figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate just how far the newspaper industry has sunk.
From January 2001 to September 2016, the newspaper business lost more than half of its jobs, the bureau says. In a little over 15 years, the industry’s headcount plunged from 412,000 to 174,000, a drop of 58 percent.
We all are aware of the culprit in the massive employment drop-off in the newspaper business: the internet. But the bureau’s new data demonstrates just how swift and substantial the paper-to-digital transition has been. Employment by internet publishers and web portals climbed from 67,000 jobs in January 2007 to 206,000 in September 2016, the bureau says. That’s an uptick of 207 percent.
When I first came across the bureau’s statistics, I felt a tinge of sadness.
The industry I adored as a reporter and editor — and still love — is disintegrating right before me, at least in its current form. And it’s hard to imagine this trend will be reversed. Newspapers continue to adapt to the digital age, but they’re struggling to turn a profit with internet ads.
Twenty years into newspapers’ entry into online ventures, “many are stuck between a shrinking market for their print product and an unsuccessful experiment with digital offerings,” according to a paper published last year in Journalism Practice.
The authors go on to say their research findings — essentially that print products reach considerably more readers than “supposedly promising” digital products — raise doubts about the technology-driven strategy of U.S. newspapers and demand “a critical re-examination of unchecked assumptions about the future of newspapers.”
To be sure, many folks in the newspaper business are undertaking critical re-examinations of both their print and digital products.
More than 30 years after graduating from journalism school, I’m satisfied to be out of the newspaper business, and given the state of the industry, I highly doubt I’ll return. My last full-time newspaper gig ended in 2006, when I stepped down as editor of the Austin Business Journal.
I felt blessed to have had the opportunity to be a member of the Fourth Estate, but it was time to move on.
Perhaps a sense of restlessness had set in. Whatever the case, I decided to dive into freelance writing and PR, and then switched to content marketing in 2010 — a notion that would have been horrifying to me when I was a newspaper journalist.
Today, I’m professionally invigorated by content marketing, as it challenges me to be a journalist, a blogger, an editor, a graphic designer and a data cruncher, all rolled into one role. However, I’ve got to acknowledge that I occasionally become wistful when pondering what it would be like to work in newspaper journalism again, at a time when news from the nation’s capital, from across the country and from around the world is swirling around us like a hurricane.
Yet reality pulls me back from that wistful thinking. For one thing, I know that the newspaper industry is bleeding red ink. For another, I know that newspaper jobs aren’t terribly lucrative; content marketing is more financially rewarding.
Newspapers remain a crucial, albeit not so sturdy, underpinning of our society.
As noted by Politico’s senior media writer, Jack Shafer, we rely on newspapers to report on the workings of our government, of the business sector and of influential major institutions.
“They [newspapers] still publish a disproportionate amount of the accountability journalism available, a function that’s not being fully replaced by online newcomers or the nonprofit entities that have popped up,” Shafer wrote in 2016. “If we give up the print newspaper for dead, accepting its demise without a fight, we stand to lose one of the vital bulwarks that protect and sustain our culture.”
Certainly, the print newspaper is not dead. But even back when I was working in Jefferson City, I heard talk about the dwindling circulation of our morning print edition. Why? Because subscribers were dying. And as a big segment of today’s newspaper readership — baby boomers — grows older and dies, will the print newspaper survive?
The journalist-at-heart part of me (the more romantic side) hopes it will.
The content-marketing part of me (the more realistic side) thinks it won’t.
It’s difficult to whip up too much optimism when so many people around you rarely, if ever, have their hands stained by newspaper ink. But for someone who practically had newspaper ink running through his veins, it is more tempting to be nostalgic and positive than it is to be forward-thinking and pessimistic.
John Egan is a writer, editor and content strategist in Austin, Texas.
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