When will newspapers disappear completely? How about other news media like television news and radio journalism?
"Times are tough for the newspaper industry," writes one well-known media analyst. "Advertising is in a slump some analysts are calling the worst in twenty years. Profits are down substantially at many papers. Vacancies are being left unfilled and budgets are being squeezed if not slashed. Almost everywhere the mood is black. Perhaps because the business has been so lucrative for so long, the painful decline in advertising caught many in the industry unprepared, prompting a wave of anxiety about the future."
That quote is by Alex Jones, then the New York Times media reporter, and it is dated January 6, 1991. Worries that the news business is in trouble are nothing new. What might be new is both the scale of the crisis and the increasingly confident predictions of mass media extinction. A decade and a half into the twenty-first century, regular forecasts that the printed newspaper will one day (maybe even one day soon) vanish completely appear regularly. In mid-2014, digital theorist Clay Shirky published an analysis, titled "Last Call" and starkly subtitled "The End of the Printed Newspaper." In it, Shirky sarcastically argued "maybe 25-year-olds will start demanding news from yesterday, delivered in an unshareable format once a day. Perhaps advertisers will decide 'Click to buy' is for wimps. Mobile phones: could be a fad." Just a few days earlier, David Carr of the New York Times noted that "Print Was
Down, Now Out," and saw the spinning off of print divisions of multimedia conglomerates into stand-alone companies as the beginning of the end of newspapers in their current form. Predicting the demise of newspapers has a long pedigree: in The Last Newspaper, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Professor Philip Meyer forecast that the last newspaper would be printed in 2043. Even the actor Cedric the Entertainer, appearing on the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, speculated the final newspaper would roll of the presses in 2039.
All that said it seems unlikely that the newspaper itself will entirely vanish. Even the printed newspaper seems destined to last for a long time in one form or another, and the same goes for a variety of other news media formats. There is a long history of old technologies and media forms being repurposed, even when their original social function has been overtaken by technological, economic, or political changes. For instance, it might have been entirely reasonable to expect that radio would disappear after the invention of television; who, after all, would want to listen to words without pictures once words and pictures together were available? This, of course, is not what happened. Instead, radio shifted from being a national medium to a primarily local medium, ceding the national news agenda for several decades to television (indeed, in 1970 radio actually moved back into the national news business with the founding of NPR). Likewise, the printed newspaper did not vanish with the emergence of radio, despite the "press-radio war" of the 1930s. Instead both the printed newspaper and the growing power of radio news accommodated each other in a variety of unforeseen ways.
It's possible the current shift to digital is more profound than these older changes. It's possible that printed news published on a more-or-less daily basis, along with television news updates and radio news, really will vanish. The idea of digital convergence—the fact that what we're seeing online is not really the emergence of a new medium but the bundling of a variety of formats onto a single technological device—is a powerful argument that many news formats will disappear. But still— communications history teaches us that we shouldn't assume media formats entirely vanish, but rather that they often find surprising ways to accommodate each other. This is likely to be as true for whatever we call "television" twenty years from now as for printed news. Rather than disappear, television and print journalism will probably adopt new social roles.