Newspapers live on

A number of years ago, I was engaged in some research and by chance came across a newspaper article dating from the mid-1920s which said radio was going to doom newspapers. 

The article predicted that the newest technological wonder would send newspapers to a pauper’s existence in a few short years since listeners would come to prefer the immediacy of radio news broadcasts.

This article had peaked my curiosity to the extent that I decided to look into what had earlier been said about television and discovered that the new medium was also predicted to end the era of newspapers. 

In both instances, the new technologies didn’t doom newspapers. They did have an impact, but far less than first imagined. 

The newest technological marvel — the Internet — now is being said to soon place newspapers on the endangered species list. Also said to be on the endangered list are traditional journalists, since bloggers — despite the fact most sites are the domain of ranters, conspiracy theorists and nutcases — are being touted as their wired-world replacement.

Circulation numbers are indeed down by a few percentage points across the globe, but readership has not declined. According to a report in the Financial Post, the Newspaper Audience Databank Inc. shows weekly readership in Canada’s top-10 markets is up 5.1 per cent since 1998. Last year, newspapers in Canada reached 10.3-million people in an average week. 

In the United States, Gary Pruitt, the chief executive of McClatchy, the publisher of 12 daily and 16 community newspapers, said that newspapers bring in more readers on any Sunday than the entire television  audience for the Super Bowl, the much-ballyhooed annual event of the year in the U.S.

The reality is the majority of newspapers continue to be profitable since advertisers well know their impact. Pierre Karl Peladeau, of Quebecor Inc., which owns Sun Media Inc. (The Winnipeg Sun is part of its stable of newspapers), the second-biggest publishing group in Canada, told the Financial Post an advertiser needs eight online readers to create the value of a single print reader.

It seems that Canadians still want to have a newspaper in their hand when they sit down for breakfast, ride the bus or subway to work, or when they have time to relax after a hard day at the office.

But, that is not to say that the Internet hasn’t had an impact. For one, newspapers such as the Winnipeg Free Press have re-organized front pages to attract the emerging wired and click-on culture of today. On the front  page, no articles are found but headlines, pictures and short  blurbs about articles that in the manner of the Internet are meant to tempt potential readers to turn to the inside pages of the newspaper for “more information.” It is a newspaper now posing as an Internet website.

The other impact is that newspapers have their own websites (the WREN’s is as an adjunct. The idea is to give readers another method of accessing information and advertisers another portal for their products. 

But, these are often money-losing ventures, forcing dailies and magazines to charge a fee to read articles found on their Internet website. Some newspaper don’t have a fee, but ask potential readers to fill-out a subscription form for free access. That is one way to track exactly how many people use a newspaper’s website to actually read the news and helps weed out those who accidentally hit the site without having any intention of reading the news, which is a common occurrence in the sometimes haphazard world of Internet usage. 

Because of this phenomenon, the use of “page-views” or those visitor digital numbers found at the bottom of a website to track Internet usage is not an exact science. Some — it will always be an undetermined number — of the viewers actually had no intention of viewing the site. That they were there in the first place is more akin to them being accidental tourists.

The gloom-and-doom predictions for newspapers comes after the Manitoba government had proclaimed April 17 Community Newspaper Day.

“Manitoba’s community newspapers have always been at the heart of their communities, reflecting the interests and lives of their readers,” said Culture, Heritage and Tourism Minister, Eric Robinson, when announcing the celebration.

“Even in today’s wired world, with 24-7 access to thousands of information sources, these publications offer news, advertisements and commentary that are meaningful and relevant to Manitobans.

“Today’s newspapers, like those of earlier times, publish editorials and letters that reflect opinions of editors, community leaders and ordinary citizens,” Robinson added. “Announcements and advertisements feature the products and services of the local business sector. The notices of births, deaths and marriages form a vital link within communities today and, over time, contribute a rich resources for genealogists researching family roots.”

Winnipeg’s first newspaper, The Nor’Wester, was founded on December 29, 1859: “As the first newspaper established in this territory, it is bound, perhaps, by regard to courtesy, if not interest, to set before the community ... the principles by which it will be guided in its career. We come here ‘strangers in a strange land’ ... we scatter it broadcast among those who though personally strangers are already friends ...” 

Perhaps the above are the best ways to explain the survival of newspapers in the face of so-called threats to their existence — they remain “meaningful and relevant” and a “friend” to the community. That is why they have survived the advent of numerous technologies said by some to have the wherewithal to replace them. A hard-copy medium with an old pedigree has remained relevant by adapting to changing circumstances.