Between ages ten and sixteen I always had paper routes, sometimes on my own and sometimes as a joint venture with my sister and brothers, enabling us to cover a larger territory (those expansionist Kelly kids!). Our family was poor – by American standards – and the money we brought in from our paper routes was much appreciated by our mother who struggled to keep seven kids fed, clothed and shod.
What prompted my memory was this image of my apartment door as I retrieved my Sunday morning papers – the Seattle Times and New York Times. Actually what prompted the memory wasn’t my doorway but rather the eleven others on my floor. To only one other apartment had a newspaper been delivered. That’s 17% of households (two out of twelve residences in my statistically far-from-valid one-floor sample) that choose to have a newspaper delivered.
While childhood memories can be unreliable, I’m guessing that about half of the homes within our childhood newspaper routes subscribed to a newspaper. Big societal changes since then.
Everyone knows that the newspaper business in the U.S. is challenged by long-term decline. This chart illustrates a steady 30% slide in paid circulation over 20 years, from 62.3 million daily circulation in 1990 to 43.4 million in 2010. The bare doorways in my apartment building are just a more specific image of this trend.
Yes, I know, newspapers delivered to doorsteps is not the whole picture. Lots of news is consumed online today. But there is also evidence that young people have become increasingly less interested in the news regardless how it is delivered, including online. My children and grandchildren certainly consume less news from all sources than do my wife and I.
I worry about this. Newspapers are the bedrock of American journalism. Ever notice how much reporting on radio and television has as its source material not gumshoe reporting by its journalists but rather newspaper stories reported by gumshoe reporters on the paid staffs of newspapers? If we were to lose this primary source of journalism, our lives would be poorer and our system of government weakened. More abuses and corruption would go undeterred and more elections would be decided by less informed voters. An indifferent and uninformed electorate is not good for democracy.
As long as newspapers continue to be published, they will adorn my doorstep.