We often forget that a particular piece of technology lies at the heart of our historical commitment to a free and vigorous "press." American political theorists write eloquently about the importance of the press to free societies and American courts rigorously define both the breadth and the limitations of the press. But we tend to forget fact that, most fundamentally, America's press depends on the piece of machinery for which it is named—the printing press.
After Gutenberg's invention of removable type and a screw-driven press in the mid-fifteenth century, printing technology changed relatively little for several hundred years. The presses used by American newspapers during the colonial period were built on the same technological principles as Gutenberg's original. But in the first half of the nineteenth century, a wave of new technologies revolutionized the printing process, and consequently the place of the newspaper in American life.
Foremost among these technological advances were improvements to the printing press itself. A horse-driven press was experimented with briefly as an alternative to manpower in the early nineteenth century, but in 1823 Jonas Booth introduced a steam-driven press that was far more efficient than literal horsepower. Booth's innovation was soon followed by the invention of the cylinder press. In the 1830s, New Yorker Richard Hoe began tinkering with the rudimentary cylinder presses being developed in Europe. His experiments culminated in the development of a four-cylinder rotary press in 1847. On this newest press, the type was placed on a large rotating cylinder that imprinted paper fed to the four impression cylinders that surrounded the central cylinder. With boys frantically feeding paper to this press, Hoe's machine could print 8000 sheets an hour.
Hoe's improvements to the press were complemented by breakthroughs in papermaking. Steam-driven machines that could press paper were developed in France and England around 1800. By the middle of the century, wood pulp had replaced linen as the primary ingredient of paper, significantly lowering the cost.
These innovations had an immediate impact on the American newspaper. By dramatically lowering the cost of printing, they enabled farsighted publishers to imagine an affordable paper aimed at a mass audience; they enabled men like Benjamin Day and James Gordon Bennett to introduce the penny paper. The penny paper dramatically changed the place of the newspaper in American life. Unlike the older papers that aimed at a relatively narrow slice of the public and served primarily as organs of political parties, the penny papers reported the whole range of urban life—crime, scandal, sports, political corruption—to the great majority of the urban populace.
The new technologies were also placed into service by the vastly expanding list of religious and reform organizations of the antebellum period. Great Awakening evangelicals and Seventh Day Adventists, advocates of the Graham diet and hydropathy—all generated their own penny papers. Cheap paper and a fast press allowed visionaries of all types to get their message inexpensively before the American public.
In the years that followed, other technologies and innovations left their mark on the newspaper. Some, like the telegraph and the trans-Atlantic cable, rapidly accelerated the collection of information. Others, like the camera and the use of color ink, expanded the graphic potential of the paper. And the introduction of the computer in the last quarter of the twentieth century radically altered both the writing and the production processes of the newspaper. But none of these have impacted the newspaper as dramatically as the internet. This newest technological breakthrough is poised to radically transform the newspaper, and news, as we know it.
For some, especially those employed in the newspaper industry, the arrival of the internet has been far from wholly beneficial. Many newspaper editors refer to the internet's challenge to the traditional press as a "crisis." Others, even more pessimistic, have concluded that "print is dead."
Adverstising revenues have plummeted as sellers and buyers turn to web-based, and usually free, services such as craigslist or eBay. For more than a century, ad sales have provided the majority of the newspaper's income, and nearly half that income after 1950 came from classified ads; plummeting ad sales, especially in classifieds, now translate into a catastrophic decline in the newspaper's principal source of revenue. (Total expenditures on classified ads in American newspapers dropped from $19.6 billion in 2000 to $14.2 billion and falling in 2007.) Second, more and more news readers get their news from one of hundreds of news portals on the web. From more traditional providers of syndicated content like Yahoo! News to innovative aggregators like Digg.com, the web is filled with alternatives to the conventional newspaper.
The numbers tell great deal of this dire story. Ad sales, which represent 80% of most newspapers' revenue, are in steep decline. They fell seven percent in 2007 alone. And circulation figures are even worse—the Boston Globe reported a 20% decline in circulation in 2007 alone; nationally, the total daily circulation of all papers combined has dropped to its lowest level since 1946—a time when the population of the United States was less than half what it is today..17 Declining circulation and declining revenues have led to massive layoffs at almost every paper. The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune laid off hundreds of workers in 2007 and 2008. The stock values of major papers have declined as well. McClatchy Group stock fell 80% between 2005 and 2008; stock in the New York Times dropped 54% over roughly the same period.18
The top-line numbers are bad enough. But deeper exploration of the newspaper crisis reveals a generational component that suggests the situation will get only worse with time. The average age of a newspaper reader today is 55—while the average age of all Americans is 35.19 Younger readers are flocking in droves to the internet for their news and leaving the print newspaper behind. A recent study of news source preferences for persons aged 18 to 34 revealed that 44% visit a web portal daily for their news, and only 19% read a newspaper.20
More troubling for the industry, not only do young people not read newspapers, but they also don't trust them. The same study revealed that only nine percent of the sample believed that newspapers were "trustworthy."21 For newspapers, the more traditional and established source of the news, this revelation is particularly painful. In recent years, as print newspapers found their turf invaded by internet news outlets and news blogs, newspapers clung to the belief that they were the most authoritative—and thus ultimately the most trusted—source for the news. But clearly, America's young people are not convinced.
As newspapers set about trying to recapture their audience, this problem of credibility might be the most difficult to address. But industry insiders with the most unflinching eye toward reform, such as as News Corp. mogul Rupert Murdoch, suggest that the credibility issue is where they must begin—and toward this end they must address attitudes within the industry itself. A 1999 survey of national reporters discovered that a growing number were skeptical of their readers' abilities to make wise decisions.22 Findings like these are difficult to assess—but newspaper reformers argue that rebuilding reader confidence won't be possible until reporters develop a greater respect for the audiences they hope to reach.
Suggestions like these from within the industry are not uncommon. In fact, there are many who believe that the "newspaper" can survive in some fashion. More and more papers, for example, are producing an online edition to recapture a portion of the market. But the consensus is that saving the American press will take more than merely offering online versions of print content.
For starters, some suggest that traditional newspaper reporters and editors will need to embrace a new model and a new sense of their own roles. Editors who continue to believe that they are responsible for selecting the news that people read will have to surrender some their power. They may have to look at models like Digg.com, which allows readers to select which stories rise to the top of the front page. Reader empowerment, in fact, seems a crucial piece to the survival story. The proliferation of news blogs suggests that readers want to comment and discuss the news, not just read it; they have turned away from traditional newspapers not because they are uninterested in the news, but because they prefer venues where they can participate more fully in its presentation.
As the newspaper works out its future, many suggest that sites like the rapidly growing Huffington Post will need to be emulated. Launched in 2005, the HuffPo draws upon many of the established practices among online news deliverers—news coverage and feature articles, news blogs, video and audio—but there is also something inversely full-circle within their approach. The great innovators of the nineteenth century reached out to new urban readers by filling their front pages with sensational and entertaining stories. The great penny papers like the Sun, the Herald, the Tribune, and the World drew their readers in with sensational stories, in hopes that they might work their way to the political and social commentary buried deeper within the paper. But the Huffington Post has reversed the approach. Employing what one analyst describes as the "mullet strategy", the site is "business up front, party in the back." Credible, serious reporting and opinion journalism produced by professionals gets front-page status, while edgier user-generated content and lively user discussions are buried deeper within the site.
The future of the newspaper is still unclear. The forms that it might take in order to survive are not yet apparent. But the numbers indicate that those interested in survival cannot cling too tenaciously to the old models. And traditionalists who resist innovation should recall that the mass circulation paper is really a recent invention—that the paper that has served for the past century as a vital part of our culture was only made possible by a group of innovators willing to embrace the possibilities lying within new technologies. Rather than clinging to the past, they might do well to ask themselves WWJ(GB)D—what would James Gordon Bennett do?