WASHINGTON -- If you awake before dawn you probably hear a daily sound that may become as anachronistic as the clatter of horses' hooves on urban cobblestones. The sound is the slap of the morning paper on the sidewalk.
The circulation of daily U.S. newspapers is 55.2 million, down from 62.3 million in 1990. The percentages of adults who say they read a paper ``yesterday'' are ominous:
65 and older 60 pct.
50-64 52 pct.
30-49 39 pct.
18-29 23 pct.
Americans 8 to 18 spend an average of 6 hours and 21 minutes a day with media of all sorts, but just 43 minutes with print media.
The combined viewership of the network evening newscasts is 28.8 million, down from 52.1 million in 1980. The median age of viewers is 60. Hence the sponsorship of news programming by Metamucil and Fixodent. Perhaps we are entering what David T.Z. Mindich, formerly of CNN, calls ``a post-journalism age.''
Writing in The Wilson Quarterly, in a section on ``the collapse of big media,'' he rejects the opinion of a CBS official that ``time is on our side in that as you get older, you tend to get more interested in the world around you.'' Mindich cites research showing that ``a particular age cohort's reading habits do not change much with time.''
Baby boomers who became adults in the 1970s consume less journalism than their parents did. And although in 1972 nearly half of those 18 to 22 read a newspaper every day; now less than a quarter do. In 1972 nearly three-quarters of those 34 to 37 read a paper daily; now only about a third do. This means, Mindich says, ``fewer kids are growing up in households in which newspapers matter.''
The young are voracious consumers of media, but not of journalism. Sixty-eight percent of children 8 to 18 have televisions in their rooms; 33 percent have computers. And if they could only have one entertainment medium, a third would choose the computer, a quarter would choose television. They carry their media around with them: 79 percent of 8-to-18-year-olds have portable CD, tape or MP3 players. Fifty-five percent have hand-held video game players. Sony's PlayStation Portable, which plays music, games and movies, sold more than 500,000 units in the first two days after its March debut.
Also writing in The Wilson Quarterly, Terry Eastland, publisher of The Weekly Standard, notes that the old media establishment ``emerged at a time when Americans generally respected those in authority.'' When that respect began to recede, establishment media actually gained strength. But the liberal coloration of the big media provoked the emergence of such rivals as Rush Limbaugh (1988) and Fox News (1996).
Consumers of news now understand that, as Eastland says, ``news is a thing made, a product, and that media with certain beliefs and values once made the news and then presented it in authoritative terms, as though beyond criticism. Thus did Walter Cronkite famously end his newscasts, 'And that's the way it is.' That way, period.''
When, after the misreported Tet offensive of 1968 (a U.S. military victory described as a crushing defeat), Cronkite declared Vietnam a ``stalemate,'' he spoke, as Mindich says, to ``a captive audience.'' Nearly 80 percent of television sets in use at the dinner hour were tuned to one of the three network newscasts, and Cronkite had the largest share.
If that had been the broadcast marketplace in 2004, John Kerry would be president: The three networks reported the Swift boat veterans attacks on Kerry only after coverage of the attacks by cable news and talk radio forced Kerry to respond. The networks were very interested in charges pertaining to a Vietnam-era story about George W. Bush's alleged dereliction of National Guard duties -- until bloggers, another manifestation of new, small and nimble media, shredded it.
The fragmentation of the media market by technology is especially dramatic in radio. Just a blink ago the widespread lament was that a few providers, such as Clear Channel with 1,200 U.S. stations, were producing homogenized programming for a single mass market. Suddenly there is satellite radio. XM's more than 150 channels include Fungus (``punk/hardcore/ska''), Squizz (``hard alternative'') and NASCAR2 (``in-race driver audio''). Sirius' more than 120 channels include one that is all Elvis, 24/7.
The future of the big media that the young have abandoned is not certain. But do you remember when an automobile manufacturer, desperately seeking young customers, plaintively promised that its cars were ``not your father's Oldsmobile''? Do you remember Oldsmobiles?