Let’s see …. If I live until the first quarter of 2043, I’ll be 112 years old.
Not likely, and that’s a good thing, because, as sure as I’m typing this, there is going to be a journalism historian somewhere publishing an article with a headline that will say something like this:
Meyer was wrong!
He or she will say this because, trust me, there will still be newspapers publishing in that year. I’m sure of that.
I’m also sure that my obituary will describe me as the professor who predicted that the last newspaper would publish its last issue in 2043.
But it ain’t so. Here’s what really happened. In 2004, I published a book with the catchy title The Vanishing Newspaper. Its goal was to try to save the newspaper industry from itself, from its shortsighted owners and managers, and nudge it toward a path that would lead to sustainable journalism.
To emphasize the gravity of the problem, I used a statistical graphic. It was a line chart, showing the percentage of adults who told the National Opinion Research Center that they read a newspaper “every day.” The line starts in 1967, when NORC asked the question for Norman Nie and Sidney Verba’s Participation in America study. After that, NORC started repeating the question every few years in the General Social Survey. In the first edition of The Vanishing Newspaper in 2004, the chart looked like this:
Peer down that regression line, I wrote, and you will see it reaching zero in the year 2043. In April. A lot of folks took that as a prediction. It’s not.
You see, nature doesn’t like straight lines. Neither do the people affected by them. Something always happens, sooner or later, to bend the line. Put your hands over the chart to focus your eye on the decade of the 1980s. The curve flattens out quite a bit. What happened was that newspaper owners got scared, and they started hiring more reporters. Maybe, they told themselves, if we make our product better, people will stick with us. And they did, and it worked.
But in the 1990s, the competition from Internet advertising kicked in, publishers started slashing costs, and the regression line resumed its downward trek. But please remember this: the line shows the proportion of adults who read a newspaper every day. The less frequent readers are important, too, and they are not represented in the chart. You might still make a sustainable business by holding on to those who read only two or three times a week.
Or, perhaps – and this seems more likely — publishers will follow what some call the “harvesting” model where they squeeze the money out of the newspaper operation as rapidly as they can and then just let it die. That could happen to many of them well before 2043.
A key reason that the theme, “Newspapers are gonna die in 2043,” took hold is that it is easy to remember. And remembering that dramatic line is easier than reading the book, which is an academic tome meant for a specialized audience. “Dry as dirt,” said one Amazon reviewer.
I tried to take advantage of this phenomenon in a luncheon speech to Canadian journalists last year. I showed them the chart, gave the dramatic interpretation of the regression line, mentioned 2043, and paused to let it sink in.
Then I said, in effect, “not gonna happen.” We professors call this “bait and switch.” It’s an attention-getting device. While I had their attention (I thought), I explained the part about nature not liking straight lines. Sooner or later, it will bend, I said. When, and how, is up to you.
Later, my hosts sent me a log of the tweets during my talk. “The last newspaper will be printed in 2043” was the most tweeted message. In fact, they were so busy tweeting the bait that they missed the switch. Apparently nobody was listening when I explained the ain’t-gonna-happen part.
A few days ago, I got a call from an Italian journalist. She works for a “daily Web magazine,” and its name is Lettera43. And, yes, the name of the magazine was inspired by my spurious “prediction.”
“We were the first entirely digital media in Italy and picked our name out of your prediction of 2043,” said the reporter, Gea Scancarello.
The vagaries of Google translation make it hard to tell what I said in that interview, but it is interesting that the prediction has morphed again: now it is the New York Times, not newspapers in general, that will die in 2043. I have no idea where that came from. Perhaps I speculated that the Times, bless its heart, would be the last newspaper standing.
But I am not complaining. They always spell my name right. And in my mind’s eye, I see a really great excuse for a newspaper staff party. In 2043, preferably in April. Maybe it could be held in an old Miami Herald building. My ghost will be there. Think of it, and turn down an empty glass.