Internet may spell end of newspaper

  • April 17, 2008

The North American newspaper is a wonderful thing. Since its rise some 300 years ago, this medium has helped build civil society and advance democracy. It has linked people together over the vast distances of the continent, and it has provided these people with the facts about what is happening in the world, and why.

Because I believe papers are building-blocks of freedom — whether big and general, like, say, The Globe and Mail, or small and specialized, like The Catholic Register — I find the hand-wringing over the future of print journalism to be an ominous sign of the times.

Almost all the news from the U.S. newspaper industry is bad. In a recent New Yorker article, media analyst Eric Alterman reports that independent American newspapers have lost 42 per cent of their market value in the last three years. “Most managers in the industry have reacted to the collapse of their business model with a spiral of budget cuts, bureau closings, buyouts, layoffs and reductions in page size and column inches,” Alterman says. “Since 1990, a quarter of all American newspaper jobs have disappeared... Only 19 per cent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 claim to even to look at a daily newspaper. The average age of the American newspaper reader is 55 and rising.”

Viewed against this picture of impending doom, the health of Canadian papers seems downright rosy. A study released in April by the Canadian Newspaper Association (CNA) showed that 2007 revenue for daily papers in this country dropped less than one per cent from the previous year. But the most significant figures in the CNA report, at least if we’re trying to get a sense of long-term trends, have to do with online advertising. The small 2.4-per-cent fall-off in Canadian print ads was offset by a whopping 29-per-cent one-year increase in Internet advertising. In the United States, the online gain was 18.8 per cent. If advertisers are abandoning the print editions of newspapers, we know where they are headed: the Internet.

It doesn’t take a degree in journalism to see where these numbers are taking us: to the eventual death of print media altogether and the rebirth of the newspaper as a site in cyberspace. So why should Catholics be interested in the way this story turns out?

Here’s why. The Catholic Church calls us to be vigilant about the quality and veracity of communication in print, electronic, visual and all other media. We are to concern ourselves about freedom of the press. But we are also summoned to be concerned about the freedom of people to get news, opinion and commentary.

It’s with regard to this last point that I have a problem with the transformation of traditional print media into so much Internet blogging.

Though the price has gone up in recent years, a daily newspaper in Canada is still astonishingly cheap, hence accessible to readers with very little money. The web sites of most dailies — at least so far — are free, but getting to these sites is not. One has to pay for a computer and an Internet service provider, and, through user fees, for the construction and maintenance of an enormously complex and expensive network of electronic equipment, cables, telephone connections and such.

Of course, many Canadians, and most people in the other affluent countries of the transatlantic world, are happy to pony up for the technology and services necessary to have access to the Internet. But is first-class news to be the property only of middle-class electronics’ consumers? The information society, if there is to be one, must be something everyone can engage in or the whole idea is nonsense. And at the present time, the only first-rate news medium that is genuinely available to every Canadian who can read English or French, without exception, is the old print-edition newspaper.

Like many readers of this column, I suspect, I value the Internet and believe in its enormous promise as a vector of truth and information. It is surely only a matter of time before a workable, widely applicable financial model for Internet advertising emerges. But while encouraging the web’s promise to unfold, we Catholics need to be keenly aware of both the benefits and the inevitable downsides of the cybernetic revolution.

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