The Social Cost of the Decline of Newspapers?Becker
According to data compiled by my colleagues Matt Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro, the number of daily newspapers in the United States has been declining for more than 90 years, from a peak of about 2200 to its present level of about 1400. The decline started with the advent of radio, accelerated with the growth of television, and continued of course as the Internet became more popular. The likelihood is that many more newspapers will disappear during the coming decade, and that dailies no longer will be a major source of information and news. This has already happened to evening newspapers: their circulation went from about five eights of the circulation of all dailies in 1940 to only about 12% at present.
A free press has been a foundation of democracies because the press spreads information about political and other developments. This is why one of the first moves totalitarian and other non-democratic governments make is to suppress the press. For example, the Iranian government has closed virtually all newspapers that are openly critical of the government. Nevertheless, I do not believe that the decline in the number of dailies, even if it rapidly accelerates, poses a major threat either to the viability of democracies, or to the spread of political and other information.
The main reason for this belief is that the Internet is far more efficient than newspapers in providing news, information, and opinion. This is obvious with respect to sports, financial developments, and weather since online updates are much more frequent than is possible even for the best papers. During the past 10 days of the Iranian election crisis, my wife and I turned mainly to the Internet for the very latest news and pictures on what was happening in Teheran and elsewhere in that country. These sources certainly included online editions of several newspapers, but also important were various online accounts by observers of and participants in the protests.
That the Internet is a more efficient provider of news and opinion than newspapers is seen in the fact that hardly anyone under age 40 now reads papers. Readership is also declining among older persons, but many of them continue to read papers- we subscribe to 3 daily and 2 Sunday editions- primarily because they built up strong habits of reading papers at breakfast or at other times. The lack of newspaper reading among younger persons is in small part a lifecycle effect, but mainly it is a strong predictor that the market for papers will continue to fall sharply.
The best newspapers, like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and Washington Post, not only present the latest news, in depth analysis of events, and selected opinions, but they certify the accuracy of what they are reporting through reputations built up over many years for objectivity, and care in checking sources. To be sure, they sometimes slant which facts to emphasize, or select stories that fit in with their particular points of view. Polls do strongly confirm that the great majority of journalists are liberal. Nevertheless, readers can usually have confidence in the news and other reports in the eminent papers.
Do online reports have a similar accuracy? I confess to being surprised by the huge numbers of men and women (including Posner and me!) who want to use the Internet to present their opinions and describe events they witness. Many millions of bloggers regularly report on everything from what they had for dinner to major political developments. Although the quality of these discussions varies greatly, many of them have gained reputations for rather accurate and unbiased reporting and analysis. A good example is the open source encyclopedia, Wikipedia, which has millions of entries that are continually updated. I have not read enough articles in Wikipedia to have an overall assessment, but I have been favorably impressed by most of those that I have read and can evaluate for their accuracy.
Although the printed newspaper industry is doomed, and will be missed by those of us that remember newspapers in their heyday, they are being replaced by good substitutes in the form of blogs, social networks like Facebook and Twitter, online news gathering by various groups, including newspapers, and other electronic forms of communication. People in democracies will continue to have access to independent and often quite accurate, reports on events in their own countries and most other parts of the world. In fact, the populations of undemocratic countries now have much greater access to what is happening in the world than they had in the past because it is far more difficult to suppress access to the Internet and other electronic forms of communication than it is to suppress newspapers.