Everybody blames the Internet for the decline of newspapers, but the Web is only the most recent of electric interruptions to have disturbed their profitability, which began with radio in the late 1920s and was followed by broadcast television, car radios, transistor radios, FM radio, and cable television. Newspapers were in so much advertising trouble in September 1941 that Time magazine ran a piece about their “downward economic spiral.” Press scholar David R. Davies argues in his 2006 book The Postwar Decline of American Newspapers, 1945-1965 that daily newspapers were in serious trouble by the mid-1960s, because, among other things, they had failed to hook the baby boom generation. Los Angeles Times press reporter David Shaw sounded the alarm in a 1976 piece in his newspaper. It began: “Are you now holding an endangered species in your hands?” Update the figures and change a few dates and the names of the principals in Shaw’s piece and you could almost pass it off as a 2012 diagnosis of newspaper industry ills.
We all know where the news business is headed, and what’s more, we’ve known it for at least a decade. So why on earth are people talking about a bailout for newspapers? It’s like introducing legislation to save horse-drawn carriages, or steam engines, or black-and-white TV. It’s stupid. It’s pointless. It won’t work.
The fact is, all this hysteria has nothing to do with saving the news, or saving jobs. Nor is it about saving democracy, which is what the red-in-the-face newspaper lovers always get themselves huffed about, as if newspapers and democracy were inextricably linked. Democracy existed long before newspapers did, and it will survive without them. And plenty of countries that don’t have democracy do have newspapers. Nor would a bailout help readers. In fact, it would only slow down our shift to the Internet, which is a far better medium for delivering information.
The only beneficiaries of a bailout would be a handful of big newspaper companies that used to be profitable and powerful and now, well, aren’t.