Not Dead Yet 

Newspapers aren't the only medium whose demise has long been predicted.

Not so fast with the epitaph. Radio was supposed to kill the newspaper. TV was supposed to kill radio. Now that the Internet is supposed to kill them all, why fuss over newspaper takeovers?

Media seldom cede the floor entirely to their technological successors, and that which adapts may survive. Take radio. Once primarily a storytelling medium, radio was confronted in the 1940s with television, a storyteller with pictures — so it adopted formats television couldn't mimic well, such as music. In the '50s it went where TV couldn't — on the road — as a standard automobile feature. And in the '60s, thanks to stereo sound and the FM band, radio began to sound way better than TV. In the '80s, video actually made the radio star bigger than ever. And while Internet radio is young — only about 12 percent of Americans listen to it — so far there's no proof that online or satellite radio users tune into regular broadcasts any less. The average American listens to nineteen hours of radio a week, which isn't bad for a medium that was supposed to die in the Truman era.

Even TV faces adaptive pressures. Remember when the industry considered VCRs a threat, since viewers could fast-forward through commercials, or prerecord shows instead of channel surfing for hours between favorites? People now make similar arguments about TiVo or Netflix, which let viewers watch without ads, or even a TV. Well, these technologies may have taught us selectivity, but not moderation. When VCRs debuted in 1972, Americans were watching about six hours of TV daily. Now we watch more than eight. Finally hip to the convenience now lesson, the TV industry has adapted with "on-demand" services and downloadable shows from iTunes. Another historical lesson: Speed trumps tradition. After CNN launched in 1980, network news ratings declined 44 percent. Now cable news faces competition from "citizen journalist" bloggers, who can instantly provide eyewitness accounts from, say, a hurricane's aftermath. The moral: Work with the Internet, not against it.

Some daily papers are applying this lesson to invigorate plummeting circulations. The pundits blame newspapers' problems on defection of readers to other media, and on ad revenue lost to Web sites such as craigslist. Yet while newspapers' print revenues were nearly flat last year, their online revenues grew 30 percent. Fifty million Americans read news online every day, often just Web versions of print newspapers. Smart papers will combine their reporting expertise with the Net's speed and interactivity. Some evolutionary frontrunners include The Washington Post, which hosts online chats about current events, and The New York Times, which offers Web-only stories and multimedia features. Other papers turn columnists into bloggers, or let readers comment on stories. Will the big dailies win new readers and stave off the scythe? Never say die.


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