Newspapers: towards the end of the traditional medium?

Decline in circulation, job cuts and fall in advertising revenues….These are the symptoms of the ongoing demise of the newspaper industry. Long gone is the time when newspapers dominated the provision of news. Today, the crisis that touches the industry at its core brings into focus the destiny of the written press and the future of journalism in western societies. Radio and television had challenged the media in the 20th century, but it is the Internet that puts the old media on the edge of obsolescence.

The newspaper industry currently worries about its own future in an apparently all-digital world. However, this fear of new technology is not new. Before the Internet, radio and television already challenged the printed medium, and newspapers responded to them in different ways.

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A couple reading a newspaper at breakfast table – United States, 1930s (Getty Images)

In the late 19th /early 20th century, the printed medium was in its golden age. The newspaper, previously read by an elite, was reaching wider and wider audience. With newspapers, people’s thirst for news events was quenched on a daily basis. They were the companions of everyday people. Workers, for instance, read newspapers on public transportation to pass time. The paper provided information and entertainment for the whole family with sensational stories, puzzles, comics and poems.

In the 1930s, the newspaper industry was shaken by radio broadcasts. The printed item was no longer dominant in news gathering and dissemination because this new competitor had a quality that newspapers did not have: instantaneousness. Like never before, radio made news and entertainment alive and allowed people to participate from their home in events like sports games, concerts or political meetings.[2] The newspaper industry reacted in two significantly different ways. Firstly, they claimed that the new medium took away from newspaper circulation and “stole” the advertising revenues. Publishers responded by trying to restrict radio’s right to gather and distribute news. For example, the American press agency Associated Press, which provided news items to newspapers, limited the use of its reports by radio stations from 1933-1935[3]. Another strategy was to modernize the distribution process of newspapers. In this attempt to compete with radio, the newspaper industry invented the faxpaper, or the “radio facsimile newspaper”. This short-lived technology delivered newspapers over radio waves, so they could be printed at home. However, the promising experiment did not last, due to the expensive price and the lengthy procedure (it could take several hours to get only three pages of a newspaper)[4]. Finally, the newspaper and the radio coexisted in the media environment, even though it meant for newspapers the loss of their monopoly over the flow of news.

Children watching the comics section of a faxpaper being printed (Gizmodo)
Children watching the comics section of a faxpaper being printed (Gizmodo)

Sound and image in motion in every home. With this innovation, the television made a major technological breakthrough when it arrived after World War II. What television brought to its audience was not only immediacy of information but also pictorial coverage of news events. As more and more people in the 1950s owned TV sets in their households, people’s time for reading newspapers declined correspondingly. For instance, due to the strong competition with television, evening newspapers no longer held their place as entertainment providers and disappeared in many large US cities[5]. As with radio, newspapers reacted with animosity toward television. As an example, they refused to print television programming schedules, arguing that they should not make free publicity to their rival[6]. To compete with the electronic medium, newspapers had to change. Consequently, they started focusing on in-depth reporting, analyses or opinion pieces and they displayed more feature stories. The introduction of color pictures, maps or graphics was in the same fashion a way to face up to broadcasts[7]. Yet the television’s challenge to the printed press is nothing compared to the Web, which puts newspapers in jeopardy with its new business model.

According to the business strategist Ross Dawson, the traditional large newspaper will come to an end by 2029 in France and 2017 in the United States[8]. These estimations suggest that with the Internet the old medium is dealing with a crisis whose outcome will involve significant changes for the publishers. Back in the early 1990s, U.S. newspaper organizations tried to figure out plans to handle the new media. In a 2012 article entitled “A Vision for the Future of Newspapers—20 Years Ago”, Mark Potts, former journalist at the Washington Post and co-founder of their website, states that news publishers at that time attempted to exploit the burgeoning Internet, and some newspapers like the Washington Post or the New York Times went online in 1996.

Prototype of the Washington Post’s website in the 1990s (Pott)

However, although they already foresaw that the digital technology could impact them, the news organizations failed to adapt to the Internet at that moment. To put it differently, the newspaper industry has “missed the boat” with the Internet. As Potts puts it in his article:

Overly cautious newspaper managers, convinced that the print golden goose was immortal and immutable, failed to fully exploit most of the opportunities presented by the new medium. They simply didn’t innovate nearly as much as they should have, leaving the field open to upstart competitors until it was too late. […] The history of the past 20 years of newspapers and digital media is, unfortunately, a legacy of timidity, missed opportunities and a general lack of imagination and guts to leap into the future.[9]

Now, twenty years later, the Web 2.0 is gradually replacing the traditional print medium. With radio and television, the newspapers succeeded in adapting their formats and content. However the Internet clearly jeopardizes the newsprint with its new logic. Indeed, the relationship with newspapers and the readers is a one-way communication. Newspapers give out information that readers consume. In the digital age, Internet services such as social media enable an access to personalized content. People no longer merely consume what is made available to them, but they are now able to express their opinions on the comment section below an article.

The Internet provides a new way to consume news (Getty Images)

Online speed also takes another dimension in the provision of news, making “the daily newspaper look slow and unresponsive”[10], as social media and news sites constantly supply up-to-the-minute information. Though newspapers have shifted to online versions, this does not mean that it will save them. Newspaper websites compete online with every news website, that is to say, in terms of reader attention, they no longer have the monopolistic position they enjoyed under the print form. Even if newspaper publishers have the capacity to reach larger audiences online, the revenues generated by the growth of online advertising do not compensate for the loss in circulation and print advertisements. Moreover, making these online platforms profitable is a challenge to publishers. The business model of the printed press relies on two rules: charging the advertisers for the eyeballs of the readers, and charging the readers too. Yet it is not necessary anymore to pay to read the news. For example, the website of the French news radio and TV channel BFMTV enables access to a wide range of content without having to spend a cent for it. Some newspaper websites set up restricted access through paywall strategies, but will it prove cost-efficient in the years to come?

Another fear that comes with the decline of the printed press, concerns the demise of journalism. When TV became mainstream, print journalists believed that newscasts, which were much more entertainment-oriented, were “dumbing-down the traditional standards of journalism”[11]. Likewise, with the Internet, print journalists fear that the new digital environment opens the path to a less structured and more biased journalism. They assert that newspapers publish more serious, verified and in-depth articles. However, Médiapart, the French online investigative and opinion newspaper, shows that the Internet is a place where journalism can reinvent itself. The site is divided in two sections: Le Journal, run by professional journalists, and Le Club, whose articles are written by the subscriber community[12]. Such innovations demonstrate that the end of news on paper does not equal the demise of journalism.

The newsprint industry is currently in a period of transition. The Web and social media impact the ways news is gathered, processed, disseminated and read. With radio and television, the newspaper first rejected the new competitors, but finally adapted to them. In the same fashion, the Internet is an alternative news sources that challenges the print medium. However, it also offers opportunities for the newspaper to change. The newspaper under its current form will perhaps disappear in a few decades, but as with radio and television, the key to its survival in the media landscape lies in its faculty to reinvent itself.

Cécilia Naquin


[1] Shannon E. Martin and David A. Copeland. The Function of Newspapers in Society: A Global Perspective. (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003), 131.

[2] Susan J. Drucker and Robert S. Cathcart. American Heroes in a Media Age. (Cresskill, N.J: Hampton Press, 1994), 44.

[3] Jack, Shafer. “The Newspaper-Web War.”, August 3, 2009. Accessed March 17, 2015.

[4] Matt, Novak. “Faxpapers: A Lost 1930s Technology That Delivered Newspapers via Radio.” Gizmodo, January 29, 2015. Accessed April 23, 2015.

[5] Mitchell, Stephens. “Newspaper.” Collier’s Encyclopedia, 1994. Accessed March 17, 2015.

[6] David R. Davies. “The Press and Television, 1948-1960.” David R. Davies’ Web Page, 1997. Accessed March 17, 2015.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ross Dawson. “Newspaper Extinction Timeline.”, 2010.

[9] Potts, Mark. “A Vision for the Future of Newspapers—20 Years Ago.” Recovering Journalist, August 19, 2012. Accessed March 17, 2015.

[10] Eric Alterman. “Out of Print.” The New Yorker, 2008. Accessed March 17, 2015.

[11] Pippa Norris. “The Decline of Newspapers?” In A Virtuous Circle: Political Communications in Postindustrial Societies, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 63-89.

[12] “Mediapart.” Wikipédia, March 13, 2015. Accessed March 17, 2015.

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