Albion Monitor /Commentary
[Editor's note: While print and broadcast media are cutting back, The Wall Street Journal reported on November 15 that Microsoft will spend about $400 million this year on content development for its Internet services, and plans to continue investment at approximately that level over the next few years. "We're going to lose a lot of money before we break even," says Executive VP Steve Ballmer.]

All the News That Shrinks to Fit

by Walt Brasch

Condensing life to save money and improve corporate profits

(AR) BLOOMSBURG, Pa. -- It was a delightful show. All 37 Shakespearean plays, cleverly and humorously abridged to just two hours by the Reduced Shakespeare Co. Short of having a set of "Cliff's Notes," source of innumerable student essays for more than a half-century, or a collection of Classic Comics, it was the least painful way to "learn" Shakespeare.

The condensation of the media probably began in 1922 with the founding of Reader's Digest, the pocket-sized magazine which keeps its 27 million subscribers happy by mulching articles from hundreds of other magazines. Reader's Digest edits literature to allow readers more time to participate in society's more meaningful activities, such as doing sit-ups with Richard Simmons or swapping useless lies with the folks at the country club. However, most media condense life solely to save money and improve corporate profits.

In radio and television news, the seven-second sound bite is now standard, forcing news sources to become terse and witty, though superficial. News stories themselves average about 30 seconds, topping out at 90 seconds, down considerably from the era when journalists, not talking heads and image consultants, were responsible for what appeared.

While newspapers shrink away, publisher profits are now at an all-time high

The print media during the past 30 years have downsized not only the quality of paper, but the size as well. Page sizes of 8-1/2 by 11 inches are still the most common magazine size, but several hundred major national magazines are now 8- by 10-1/2 inches, a 10 percent reduction. Newspaper page width has dropped to 13-1/2 inches, almost two inches smaller than it was during the 1950s; many Sunday color comic sections are now being printed in 12-1/2 inch widths.

To fit onto abbreviated pages, publishers demand shorter manuscripts. To save even more costs, they squeeze more type onto a page than ever before, sometimes photographically compressing type to save a few bucks.

USA Today, the Reader's Digest of newspapers, condenses the world into four sections. Publishers of community newspapers, citing both USA Today's format and nebulous research about reader attention span, impose artificial limits on stories -- fifteen inches is a common measure for most -- while throwing color and graphs instead of news at the readers.

Of course, newspapers have been in a freefall for most of the past three decades. We've lost 231 daily newspapers since WWII, almost all of those since 1980. That's about 13 percent; weekly newspapers also died by roughly the same amount.

Although the size of the population has grown, newspaper circulation, which peaked at 62.8 million subscribers in 1985, dropped over 7 percent in the next ten years. More alarming, now one person out of three does not even glance at a daily newspaper.

Also dropping is the media's workforce. During the past six years, television networks cut their news operations and dumped hundreds of news staff. Although local radio has increased news staff, more than 90 percent of all stations have only one reporter.

Magazine and book publishing companies now assign much of their work to independent contractors. Newspapers, TV and radio stations have increased the use of "stringers," part-time reporters who often work almost a full-time load, but are paid significantly less than full-time staff and get no benefits.

Layoffs and job eliminations of full-time staff by newspaper publishers dropped total newspaper employment from 542,000 in 1989 to 491,000 in 1995, while employment throughout this country was increasing about 25 percent.

As news quality diminishes, about the only things that seems to be increasing are advertising revenue (from $2 billion in 1950 to $36 billion in 1995 for newspapers) and publisher profits, which are now at an all-time high.

Dr. Brasch, a former newspaper reporter and editor, is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University

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Albion Monitor November 23, 1996 (

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