Search: The Newspaper Slayer?

At a panel last week hosted by the New York Public Library in honor of Slate's 10-year anniversary, several renowned journalists and editors debated the future of newspapers. As much fun as it was to see Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell chime in every 20 minutes with a pithy, crowd-pleasing anecdote, relieving me of the constant strain of trying to make out what Arianna Huffington was saying, these panelists filled the hour and a half with wild assertions and ill-informed prognostications that seemed no more prescient than what any media consumer could come up with.

One of the most repeated theories, which has some truth to it, is that newspapers as we know them are dead. So who's killing them? Those fingered in this game of "Clue: Media Edition" included Ms. Blog in the den with a $30 iPod microphone, Mr. Craigslist in the attic with a free classified ad, and Colonel Search Engine in Mountain View and Sunnyvale with a new media paradigm.

Norman Pearlstine, who most recently served as editor in chief of Time, Inc from 1995 to 2005, repeatedly blamed newspapers' death on search engines. He said, "Advertisers who thought newspapers were a great way to reach people have discovered search... That's what's going to kill newspapers." He'd return to that reasoning several times throughout the discussion. There's only one problem with that theory: it's wrong.



He does have backers. EMarketer, commenting on a 2005 report from Outsell, said, "Outsell wrote that Google and Yahoo! are 'clearly diverting advertising revenue' directly from the newspapers and magazines owned by the 10 largest information companies. In fact, Outsell found that the newspapers owned by the New York Times Co. are struggling as the industry in general tries to 'recapture ad revenue growth and young audiences.'"

The problem with all of this is that consumers have been abandoning newspapers since long before anyone could access the Internet. Reviewing the Newspaper Association of America's historical figures makes for a fun read. Daily weekday newspaper readership averaged 80.8 percent in 1964, and then forever dipped below 70 percent in 1980. The mark slipped below 60 percent in 1995. That's 16 years to erode from 80 percent to 70 percent, 15 years to erode from 70 percent to 60 percent, and it is taking longer than a decade for readership to erode another 10 percent (it stood at 51.6 percent in 2005, but it's hard to predict when it will fall permanently below 50 percent, as readership tends to fluctuate slightly for any two- or three-year period).

With that steady decline, averaging less than a percentage point a year since 1964, who killed newspapers? NBC became the first network to broadcast entirely in color in 1966. CNN was founded in 1980. Search engines didn't become a mainstream hit until 2000, give or take a year, when newspaper readership stood at 55.1 percent. Three years later, readership still topped 54 percent.

With all due respect to Mr. Pearlstine, search engines can hardly field the blame here. They might be more directly winning over classified advertisers, but the erosion shows that newspapers have not been able to adapt to a changing media landscape since LBJ was president, so either finger consumers for tormenting newspapers with the death by a thousand cuts, or consider the damage self-inflicted.

Later that night, during the Q&A period, an audience member wondered if one of the Internet's advantages could be its Achilles' heel. He asked if online news sources, living and dying by analytics, run the risk of "whoring for clicks." Given that Newsweek just had Johnny Depp on its cover (ahoy, our new Errol Flynn had to find space sandwiched between a review of "Superman" and a lengthy report on Elle Macpherson's lingerie line), and CBS hired Katie Couric as a news anchor (her biggest journalistic coup to date was leaking fall fashion secrets), whoring for viewers and advertisers is a specialty of all successful media properties.

With search, the media can take this to new levels, giving readers precisely what they're looking for (Adorable missing children? Half-naked celebrities? Supreme Court coverage? Cooking tips from Mario Batali?). It's incredibly empowering knowing not just what people read, but what they want to read. This insight can improve not just the online experience, but the consumer experience for every type of property the media company owns.

Fancy that: the culprit suspected of killing newspapers may be the papers' best shot at combating the audience erosion that's been documented for over four decades. "Killer Turns Hero!"--now that's a story I'd like to read.

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