October 28, 2008

The future of the newspaper

The biggest news of the day in the media world is the revelation that starting in April of next year, the Christian Science Monitor will no longer be a daily newspaper. It will instead switch to being mainly an online presence and a weekly publication. In this regards, it will become more like the Economist rather than USA Today.

This is a sensible move to counteract the major weakness of the CSM: its lack of a consistent base. Unlike other publications who are able to become national, like the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor has no major city from which to draw a relatively steady stream of readers. That leaves it in a competition with the USA Today and other papers for a national audience, something which it is hard pressed to do. The Christian Science Monitor, after all, is best known for relying less on the wire services than other papers and its analysis. It doesn't compete on breaking news, unlike other papers like the Washington Post. Thus a weekly magazine-esque paper with an online presence best allows the CSM to attract a wider audience more suited to its own strengths.

The collapse of the CSM as a daily, though, brings up interesting questions about the future of the newspaper in general. Though large papers might continue to see their circulations shrink, there is almost no chance of the medium as a whole disappearing. The major newspapers of the cities will still survive, albeit in a smaller form. It is those small-town newspapers, however, which are in danger of being eliminated the most.

Small town newspapers have only one strength: their locality. Because they are relatively small they can target local business advertisements and local news stories that wouldn't otherwise be picked up. This might be enough to save newspapers in towns that can sustain a relatively moderate circulation. But as the economy goes, so do the newspapers: revenues from advertisements fall with falling economic times.

Papers of all kinds are likely to survive nonetheless. Because, and so long as, they provide a service unavailable elsewhere, newspapers will be able to withstand the rise of the Internet. If they can't, well, they can look to the examples of the New York Times and Christian Science Monitor for a post-newspaper era.

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