Graph of New York Times stock price decline
The decline and fall of the mainstream print media continues apace. S. T. Karnick notes that this is a good trend for the American culture.

The mainstream media are struggling to keep pace with the great civilizational transition from analog means of communication distribution to digital distribution. The big TV networks have been losing audiences for two full decades, and in the past couple of years their audiences have deteriorated to the point that their previous monetary advantage over cable/satellite channels has nearly entirely disappeared.

With the Federal Communications Commission’s forcible transition to all-digital TV coming in February, the networks will receive a bit of a boost as their over-the-air signals will be better, but the march to digital TV over cagel, satellite, and now the internet will undoubtedly continue and probably accelerate.

In the print media the situation is even more dire—from the perspective of the sclerotic, arrogant elites who currently run things. Newspapers and magazines are sustained by advertising dollars (as opposed to subscription revenues), and ad money has been rushing away from the print media to television, radio, and the Web. The latter has yet to see a great boost in ad money, but as website audience rating becomes more sophisticated in the next couple of years, the shift will become much more pronounced.

This is all to the good, as the mainstream media were long able to treat their positions as sinecures and their products as only minimally affected by audience preferences. With the huge costs associated with buying into the distribution of television, film, and influential print operations, the mainstream media had been increasingly able to operate pretty much as they pleased for some three decades since the early 1970s.

Thus as the left took over the mainstream media during the decades after World War II, their hegemony became increasingly evident and immutable over the ensuing half-century.

In recent years, however, radio and the web have been much more responsive to audience reaction, and that has meant in particular that a much wider variety of viewpoints has been conveyed to potential audiences. That, in turn, has led to increased audiences for those two media and less for the unresponsive mainstream outlets.

Thus the news has been increasingly bad for the media elites and good for the rest of us. Consider a few recent examples:

Hard times for the New York Times are seen as likely to continue. Revenues were down in the first half of this year, and ad revenues fell by 11 percent, even including the increase in online ad money. Although circulation rose slightly, advertisers are gong elsewhere, indicating that the Times‘s advertising has been overvalued (and hence overpriced) in recent years. With the recession now in full swing and showing no signs of imminent abatement, arrogant, overvalued institutions such as the Grey Lady will continue to take the brunt of the effect of advertising reductions.

Editor & Publisher reports that the New York Times has lost circulation in its all-important weekday editions in recent months, as did all of the top 25 daily newspapers in the nation (although the losses by USA Today and The Wall Street Journal were a minimal 0.01 percent).

Circulation of Sunday newspapers is declining even faster, reports Digital Ink News.

Taken together, those two trends constitute a continuing disaster for most of the legacy media newspapers and further proof that technological change is resulting in much creative destruction as new, more audience-friendly outlets increasingly replace the old.

More such news:

The corporate owner of the Rocky Mountain News,  the oldest newspaper in Colorado (which has been coproduced in recent years by the very mainstream Denver Post), is trying to sell the paper after enduring a loss of $11 million on the newspaper’s operations in the first nine months of this year.

Under pressure from revenue declines, newspapers are slashing jobs, laying off large numbers of workers.

Even newspapers in one-paper towns are losing their grip: the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle just laid off fifty-nine workers. This is only the latest among a huge amount of such job cuts in cities across the nation.

Although the job losses will be painful for those whose positions are eliminated, the reductions in expenses are both necessary and urgent, though they are almost certainly arriving too late to save most of these publications in the long run, and definitely will not preserve them in their present form. In addition, the newspapers have been forced to reducet he number of bargains and promotions used to build circulation, which will further constrict their reach.

One industry analyst aptly refers to all of this as a "newspaper death spiral," noting that total industry advertising revenue was down 18 percent below the year before, even online revenue for the legacy media has been dropping in the past year, and the overall decline in newspaper ad revenue is accelerating:

Print advertising has been declining for ten straight quarters, but this marks only the second quarter that online advertising also went down. More concerning is that the overall rate of decline seems to be accelerating, a trend we noted in September. Here is the percentage change in total newspaper advertising for the past five quarters:

3Q07: -7.4%
4Q07: -10.3%
1Q08: -12.85%
2Q08: -15.11%
3Q08: -18.11%

The fourth quarter will probably be worse.

All of this news has led analysts to suggest that the continuing travails of the industry indicate that the bankruptcy filing of Tribune Co. is a portent of the future and to ask whether anything can save the newspaper industry as it currently exists, in particular local, paid-circulation print newspapers.

It seems increasingly unlikely that the industry will ultimately weather the changes without becoming much more responsive to its readers, and that is all to the good.