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Newspapers facing a death spiral?

Amid reports of war, economic meltdown, and political coalitions, the newspapers haven’t really covered the news of their own demise – except in their own trade journals and blogs.

Maybe that’s because not enough reporters and editors are still working. According to the blog Paper Cuts, at least 15,586 U.S. journalists lost their jobs in 2008, and another 210 have been laid off in the first week of 2009.

A Gallup poll in December found growing numbers of Americans were getting their news from cable news networks and the internet, and newspaper readership has declined from 44 percent to 40 percent. (Local TV news, though declining, is still Americans’ top source, at 51 percent.)

A Pew Research study confirmed the finding, saying that 40 percent get their national and international news from online sources, compared to 35 percent from newspapers.

U.S. media were shocked this week when the New York Times actually ran an ad on its front page. It may be too little too late: According to a column in The Atlantic Online, the NYT may be out of business by this May, at least as a hard-copy paper. An online version, maybe with a paper edition on Sunday, could be its only way out.

Here at home, the Canadian Association of Journalists warned this week that job cuts at papers are reaching “a tipping point where the decline in the quality of news content will lead to an industry death spiral of less content, smaller audiences, and yet more cuts.”

These cuts have been going on for some time, largely driven by the defection of advertisers to online media. According to a report last fall, Canadian internet users are supplementing their newspaper reading with web journalism, but evidently paying more attention to online ads than to those in the papers.

And in hard times, says another report, cash-strapped Canadians say they’ll cut their newspaper subscriptions after concerts and sports tickets, movies, and DVDs. Last item they’ll cut: their internet connections.

The financial impact has been heavy but volatile. For example, CanWest Global, on January 7, jumped 9 cents, to 89 cents a share. In the past year, CanWest shares have ranged from $7.90 to 34 cents.

The big media corporations, even CanWest, can probably survive on their TV and radio revenues, but millions of us will find the loss of the newspapers both painful and expensive. We’ll miss the morning ritual of reading the paper at breakfast. And spilling coffee on a laptop keyboard is a lot more costly than spilling it on the sports section

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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