Last spring, an assembly of editors was asked how many of them knew who Craig Newmark was? A few hands in the audience went up. And how many had heard of Craigslist? A few more people added their hands.
The latest statistics out of the Audit Bureau of Circulations find that newspaper circulation dropped 2.6 percent in the six months that ended in September. That's more of a drop than in any comparable six-month period since 1991.
A new Pew survey reports that 48 percent of blog creators are under 30 and 39 percent of them have college or graduate degrees.
All this speaks volumes about the state of the print news business, and its increasingly perilous future. As someone who earns his daily bread working for an online media publication, I'm opening myself to obvious criticism. But truth be told, I want to be proved flat wrong. I grew up with newspapers--starting as a 13-year-old delivery boy for the Long Island Press in Queens, New York, and then in my first professional gigs. What's more, I've been reading the print edition of The New York Times all my adult life and can't imagine ever straying from that daily routine.
But I'm a dinosaur, part of a shrinking generation of daily print newspaper readers who likely will disappear in a few decades. And we're being replaced by folks who "consume media" through the use of RSS feeders, Web portals and blogs.
You can chalk some of that up to convenience. Improving technology just makes for an easier, and often, richer reading experience. But let's not let the Fourth Estate off the hook so quickly. The argument that the decline of newspapers was inevitable overlooks the accumulated mistakes committed by the profession over the years.
Consider the Craigslist anecdote. It's mind-boggling that newspaper editors had no idea about the existence of an Internet phenomenon that's. I wish they had been asked . Even if they had heard about blogs, my hunch is that most would have dismissed it as a fad or as an otherwise waste of time.
By now, I thought thiswas history. Wishful thinking. Some of the most respected print journalists around --at best interesting oddities but clearly not something to cuddle up to for very long. During a panel discussion on Internet versus traditional media that I attended this week in Santa Clara, tech columnist John Markoff of The New York Times and tech columnist Kara Swisher of The Wall Street Journal sounded like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as they repeated the mainstream media's general suspicion of the blogosphere: Who are those guys?
Markoff and Swisher are smart cookies who are clued into the technology business. But there's a shift under way in which authority is being transferred to authors with no accountability other than to themselves and their readership. Does it matter? Should it matter? The mainstream media can look down its nose at the blogosphere, but the numbers tell a different story. More people than ever are reading blogs because of shared affinities and it's coming at the expense of print newspapers.
Yahoo Chief Operating Officer Dan Rosensweig, who was also on the panel, put it succinctly to traditional media:
"We don't know who your editors are. All our lives we read stuff written by people we don't know that's edited by people we don't know, who might have an agenda."
It's all a matter of perspective, but while these debates drone on, newspapers continue to lose readers and advertisers. If that's not a wake-up call for a new approach, then what is?