<i>In The News:</i> Declining Newspapers, Digitizing Books, Abe's Top 10

- by Michael Stillman

Newspapers

These are tough times for newspapers.


By Michael Stillman

There was more bad news for the printed word, at least in newspaper form, in reports for the past six months recently released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. The ABC officially monitors the circulation of newspapers, and they reported a decline of 4.64% in circulation for the April-September period of 2008 compared to last year. Newspaper circulation has been declining for years, but recently the rate of decline has been accelerating. Last year's decline for the same period was 2.6%.

Declines were found across the board. Only two of the top 25 newspapers in the U.S., national publications USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, managed to avoid the trend, each with miniscule increases that amounted to holding steady. The New York Times lost 3.6% of its weekday circulation, but rivals the Daily News and Post saw even greater declines. Sunday editions saw similar decreases. The major newspaper in Boston, Atlanta, Houston and some other markets saw double-digit declines. A few newspapers did see their circulation increase, though these were mostly in smaller markets, often ones with growing populations.

For newspapers, circulation decreases can initiate a downward spiral. Advertising rates are based on circulation numbers, so rates come down, even as competition for advertising revenue (particularly from the internet) increases. Newspapers frequently respond by laying off staff (the Los Angeles Times recently announced layoffs), but this reduces the quality of the newspaper, which can lead to further deterioration of circulation. Add to all of this the growing recession and it is easy to see the magnitude of issues newspaper publishers face today. Newspapers have made up some revenue from websites, but this has generally been small compared to the losses.

How does all of this apply to books? The answer is not clear. Competition for book readers also comes from the internet and electronic reading devices. However, newspapers are more reliant on timeliness than books. Most stories in today's newspaper can be read on the internet yesterday evening. The situation for books may not be so dire, but the world is changing, and everyone associated with the book trade needs to prepare for a rapidly evolving future.

PALINET, a consortium of libraries, museums, and other institutions, recently announced a digitization program for selected items in their members' collections. Fourteen members will be participating in the pilot run, including the Universities of Maryland, West Virginia, and Pittsburgh, Penn State, Villanova, Lancaster County Historical Society, Independence Seaport Museum and others. If all goes well, some 60,000 books will be digitized and posted on the internet, with free access provided to all. This is certainly not the first such project, the largest one being Google's Book Search, but the PALINET project will focus on local and regional resources that may not be found elsewhere.