Why print’s death throes deal democracy a body blow

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that newspapers, at least in their printed form, are dying out. True, almost half of US adults still read a daily newspaper, but that figure is down from more than 80 per cent in 1964. The most obvious impact has been on local competition: a century ago, nearly 700 US cities had more than one daily paper; now, only about a dozen still enjoy the privilege. And this year has already seen the loss of the print editions of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News and the Citizen of Tucson.

All this is despite America’s long-standing Newspaper Preservation Act, which in 1970 gave distressed local newspapers an exemption from competition laws, allowing them to form business alliances, fix prices to advertisers and subscribers, and prop each other up. The act is evidently not enough to keep competition alive.

The internet, of course, is both a cause of this trend and, perhaps, the reason it may not matter much. Publishers are more worried about the loss of advertising revenue than readership. Newspapers flourished by bringing together local advertisers and local readers, but in an internet age, that no longer looks like such a difficult trick.

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Tim Harford’s blog

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Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.