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Deserved decline

Declining newspaper circulation is a rejection by the country as a whole of the opinions of the scribbling class

Issue: "Beyond hate speech," Aug. 20, 2005

From 1980 to 2000, the population of the United States increased by nearly 55 million souls, from 226,545,805 to 281,421,906 people. That's about a 25 percent surge.

But for roughly the same period-1984 to 2003-newspaper circulation fell by 13 percent. During these years the gross domestic product, measured in constant dollars, skyrocketed by 161 percent, according to The Wall Street Journal. Newspaper advertising revenue crept up only 4 percent in the same period.

The most recent numbers have carried even more bad news for the ink-stained wretches of the press. The 814 largest dailies saw circulation decline 2 percent over the six months that ended March 31. The Washington Post lost 3 percent of its readers; the Los Angeles Times around 6 percent; and the Dallas Morning News 9 percent.

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These circulation numbers do not fully convey the crisis in the newspaper business, as millions of papers that are still delivered go mostly unread by subscribers who routinely used to pore over their pages. As the "touch" rate goes down, so will the rates that papers can charge advertisers, and with declining revenues come even more cutbacks in newsroom staffing.

This sea-change in the way Americans get their news has huge implications for the politics and culture of the United States.

For years conservatives have rightly complained of the relentless bias of newsrooms. That bias is still there and in fact has grown worse, but its impact is dramatically less as the reach of papers has fallen.

Last month the Los Angeles Times announced the departure of its editor, John Carroll, and the exit of the editor of the paper's opinion pages, Michael Kinsley, is said to be close at hand as well. Both Mr. Carroll and Mr. Kinsley were central exhibits in the museum of liberal media bias, and hard times at the Times is in large part the legacy of their relentless liberal agenda.

The collapse of the credibility of the Times and the loss of readership is yet another example of the culture's refusal to reward elites for their disparagement of mainstream morality and opinion. Declining newspaper circulation is a rejection by the country as a whole of the opinions of the scribbling class, but even the approach of obsolescence is unlikely to trigger the reforms that could revitalize a once vibrant sector of American media.

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