Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes
This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.
CHICAGO - It's 9:30 a.m., and Josh Darrah has settled in with a cup of coffee and his laptop at Northern Illinois University's student center. The freshman's first class is done, and it is time to check up on the world beyond the DeKalb campus.
Plugged into a wireless network, he's speeding across the Internet, visiting "nerd news sites," as he calls his favorite tech news pages. Some will have links to broader stories - the war in Iraq, hurricanes, etc. - that he may click on. But he won't be visiting any newspaper Web sites and certainly won't be reading an actual paper. He said he will, though, get a helping of news later from the nightly televised current events satire, "The Daily Show."
"It's the most balanced show on TV," said Darrah, an electrical engineering major. "They just make fun of both sides."
Brian Thornton, a journalism professor at NIU, said he's had three or four students tell them him "The Daily Show" is their main source of news - and they're studying to be journalists.
No wonder some worry the newspaper industry's future looks bleak. A generation is growing up with a new array of information options: partisan Internet blogs; Web pages devoted to news on a single subject, like Darrah's tech sites; and portals like Yahoo that aggregate news from myriad sources.
The newspaper industry has been trying to reinvent itself with its own online presence and with specialized publications such as RedEye, the Chicago Tribune's youth-oriented daily tabloid.
But the industry's circulation woes keep getting worse, with the number of copies sold on an average day falling by 1.35 million during the five years ending in 2004, according to the Newspaper Association of America.
Meanwhile, ad revenue is stagnant, and newsprint costs are rising. Not surprisingly, the industry has been chockfull of news itself lately, particularly in the form of layoffs.
The New York Times Co., which also owns the Boston Globe and other media properties, has announced 700 job cuts since May. Knight Ridder Inc., a major U.S. newspaper firm, said recently it will cut about 100 positions at its two Philadelphia newspapers and another 50 at the San Jose Mercury News in California.
Meanwhile, Dow Jones & Co. said in October that it will shrink the width of the U.S. edition of the Wall Street Journal to 12 inches from 15 inches, saving $18 million annually. And the Baltimore Sun, owned by Tribune Co., which also owns the Chicago Tribune, said it would close two of its five international bureaus to cut costs.
A recent report by Goldman Sachs forecasts that newspaper companies on average will post operating profit margins of 22.7 percent this year, a level many industries would envy.
Still, those margins are expected to be down about 1 percent from last year, according to the report. And that has led to increased pessimism among investors.
"I think newspapers are at a tipping point," said Rishad Tobaccowala, a Chicago-based chief innovation officer for Publicis Groupe, a global advertising and marketing firm. Online media is a good substitute for the traditional newspaper, he said, and thus will draw more and more advertising dollars over time.
Newspapers' virtues have long been their timely and localized delivery of printed information. The Internet does that one better, with even more timeliness, and not just localization but personalization, Tobaccowala said.
Merrill Brown, a media consultant and former chief editor of MSNBC.com, agreed.
"The Internet is the greatest medium ever invented for the delivery of news," said Brown, who authored a report on young people's media habits for the Carnegie Corp.
"No other medium can say that it is, by definition, `on demand,''' said Brown, whose report concluded that younger people are abandoning "news as we've known it."
Tobaccowala said that of all news media, newspapers are in some ways in the worst possible position. "They are the least visually engaging and least youth-oriented."
Newspapers were scarce at NIU's student center during a recent visit. Some students perused the free campus daily, the Northern Star. But it was hard to find a place to buy a metro daily, let alone see someone reading one.
Darrah, who's from Buffalo Grove, Ill., sat at a table in the student center tapping at his keyboard. On the screen before him was Slashdot, a tech news site with the motto "News for Nerds. Stuff that Matters."
It's a site where fellow tech enthusiasts post stories from mainstream and nonmainstream media. On a recent day, it featured a wide variety of things, from a story from Reuters, a global news service, to an item plucked from a blog dedicated to Google.
"I check three different nerd news sites," Darrah said. Also in his morning routine: stops at sites devoted to comics that are exclusive to the Web.
A few tables away from Darrah, Dana Norton of Algonquin, Ill., is studying chemistry. A sophomore studying physical therapy, she hadn't checked the news yet and wouldn't do so until returning to her apartment after noon.
Once there, she wouldn't be picking up a newspaper. Her prime news source is the home page of her instant messaging provider. When she logs into the messaging service, up pops a page that also features headlines, which link to news stories. Norton can pick and choose the headlines she wants, avoiding the hassle of leafing through a newspaper.
"Now that everything is online, I can just go to specific things," she said. "It's quicker."
Heather Tody, a junior majoring in communications, also relies on the Internet for news.
Tody regularly spends about a half hour around 1 p.m. sitting before a computer at a campus library, catching up on e-mail and headlines.
"I see what's going on and then start my homework," she said.
Tody said she gravitates to breaking news and offbeat stories. Her favorites are CNN.com, Weather.com and Oprah Winfrey's home page.
"I love Oprah," she said, adding that she read the talk-show host's coverage of hurricane devastation in New Orleans.
She doesn't go to newspaper sites, except for that of her local paper, the Northwest Herald.
Newspaper companies have been pouring resources into their Web sites for several years. But the Internet "is a whole different ballgame," said Brent Stahl, a vice president at Minnesota Opinion Research, a media research outfit.
Yahoo, MSN and Google, all of which feature news, have the advantage of being home pages to millions of Internet users, Stahlsaid. On the Internet, he said, "there's more competition, more like newspapers were 50 years ago."
Media consultant Brown said that for the most part, newspaper Web sites haven't distinguished themselves among the competition.
"By and large they have failed to successfully embrace the idea of becoming the information and commerce hubs of their regions," he said.
In Brown's view, newspaper sites haven't effectively become must-go-to places for local and regional information and advertising.
Still, newspaper sites are making headway in increasing the industry's reach, including in the elusive youth market.
The latest analysis by the Newspaper Association of America found that between February 2004 and March 2005, newspaper Web sites increased newspapers' total audience by 12 percent. The analysis covered 100 newspapers.
The increase was most pronounced among younger age brackets. For 25- to 34-year-olds, newspaper sites increased papers' audiences by 19 percent. That same figure for 18- to 24-year-olds was up 16 percent.
Kevin Levy, a NIU freshman and an Air Force ROTC member, is the type of reader that gives the newspaper industry hope.
His morning routine at the student center also includes sitting down with his laptop and rifling through the Internet. But Levy, who's studying broadcast video production, faithfully stops each day at three newspaper sites: the Chicago Tribune, the suburban Daily Herald and the Kane County (Ill.) Chronicle.
Levy, who plans on an Air Force career, grew up in South Elgin, Ill., in a household that subscribed to a newspaper. He read the paper growing up and reads it now, along with newspaper Web sites.
He prefers reading hard copy.
"I've been doing it for so long, it seems natural," he said.
(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.