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Jeff Jacoby

Will newspapers survive?

I began working for newspapers 20 years ago this week, when the Boston Herald hired me as an editorial writer, a job I enjoyed for six years before moving to The Boston Globe in 1994. A career in journalism was not something I had ever envisioned: When I was in second grade I announced that I was going to be a judge when I grew up. In time I earned a law degree, passed the bar exam, and joined a large law firm - only to discover that lawyering wasn't my cup of tea. But even though I never became a judge, I have had the good fortune of being paid to render opinions, and the even better fortune of doing so in the pages of a newspaper.

One of the first things I learned in this business was how eager some people are to express their disdain for it. When I was at the Herald, people regularly told me that it was a paper they refused to read; in the years since, plenty of others have made sure to tell me the same thing about the Globe.

Sneering at the daily fishwrap is a venerable American tradition. The first newspaper published in the colonies - Publick Occurrences - appeared in Boston on Sept. 25, 1690, and was promptly suppressed by the government, which denounced its "sundry doubtful and uncertain reports." More than a century later, Thomas Jefferson declared that "the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors."

Today's legions of press critics say nothing that hasn't been said before - including by members of the press. (In 1919, H. L. Mencken described "the average American newspaper, even of the so-called better sort" as "ignorant . . . unfair and tyrannical . . . devious, hypocritical, disingenuous, deceitful, pharisaical, pecksniffian, fraudulent, slippery, unscrupulous, perfidious, lewd, and dishonest.") Newspapers have always drawn fire, often deservedly. But they have also always drawn readers. Now, increasingly, they don't.

Like most Americans over 40, I grew up in a home in which a newspaper was read every day. That is no longer the norm. The percentage of Americans who read a paper every day has fallen from around 70 percent in 1972 to 35 percent today. Among younger adults - those under 30 - newspaper-reading has become almost an eccentricity: Just 16 percent read a paper daily. Industrywide, newspaper circulation has been dropping for 20 years. What's worse, the rate of decline seems to be speeding up.

Nobody thinks this is just a temporary setback. The disappearance of traditional newspapers is increasingly regarded as inevitable. "Who Killed the Newspaper?" asked The Economist in a cover story last year. Note the past tense.

The conventional answer, of course, is that the Internet is the culprit. Readers by the millions have migrated to the Web, where news and information are supplied for free. In their wake, newspaper subscriptions have evaporated, advertisers have decamped, and print revenues have plummeted.

But is the rise of the Internet really the cause of the exodus from newspapers? When I signed on 20 years ago, the slide in readership was already underway. Daily circulation was already falling. The absence of a newspaper habit among younger readers was already prompting concern. Today the crisis may be more acute, but the symptoms appeared before the World Wide Web did.

So if the Internet isn't at the root of newspapers' woes, what is? I nominate not the computer screen, but the TV screen.

Newspapers have been undone by the rise of television, which emphasizes stimulation over substance and fast-paced imagery over focused thought. A generation raised on TV mindlessness is a generation less equipped to read a newspaper - and therefore less interested in doing so. It has always struck me as crazy that newspapers devote so much ink to television, tempting readers to put down the paper and turn on the tube, from which so many of them don't return.

Then again, who knows? "I have been in the newspaper business since 1964," the celebrated political columnist Molly Ivins said at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government last fall, shortly before her death in January, "and during that entire time I have been told it's a dying industry."

Is it possible that, against all odds, the reports of the death of American newspapers will turn out to have been greatly exaggerated? Ask me again in 20 years.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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