What’s Really Killing Newspapers

They’re no longer the best providers of social currency.

By Jack Shafer

Updated Friday, Aug. 1, 2008, at 6:34 PM ET


The last thing the unwell newspaper industry needs is another diagnosis of what ails it—so here goes!

Not that long ago, the daily newspaper was an indispensable coiner of social currency, and it gave its readers piles of the stuff in each edition. The phrase, which comes from sociology, is often used to describe the information we acquire and then trade—or give away—to start, maintain, and nurture relationships with our fellow humans.

Take, for instance, the voluminous results of newspaper sports pages. Terrific for sports fans, of course, but the sports pages have been used to grease sales calls, break ice on first dates, and fuel water-cooler bonding for a century. Even folks who don’t care for sports skimmed the sports pages for a little something about the games and athletes so they could engage in essential small-talk.

A recent Associated Press study, “A New Model of News” (PDF), speaks directly to the social currency concept. The news can “be used in a variety of interpersonal situations—to look smart, connect with friends and family and even move up the socio-economic ladder” and “maintain relationships.”

The social networking that takes place via instant messaging, microblogging, or e-mail further steals from newspapers the mindshare they once owned. You no longer need to rely on a paper for the social currency that a weather report, movie listings, classified ads, shopping bargains, sports info, stock listings, television listings, gossip, or entertainment news provide. As falling circulation indicates, fewer do. And the newspaper isn’t the only media hub suffering in the new era. Radio, which once served a similar social role with its menu of music, news, and talk, is plummeting.

What’s the cure for the newspaper’s malady? As if I knew! Just count this as my small contribution to Adrian Monck’s finding that the decline of newspapers has nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with the changing world.


has been writing computer programs since 1970, and is still debugging them. The first modem he used was as big as a washing machine but not nearly as useful.

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