Evening papers are back - online

November 27, 2005|By DOUGLAS BIRCH | DOUGLAS BIRCH,SUN REPORTER

For those who love newspapers - to read them, write them and rail at them - these are somber times.

Metropolitan dailies face rising costs, falling share prices and declining circulation - 2.6 percent in the last six months alone. American papers have shed more than 1,900 jobs since the beginning of the year, industry publication Editor & Publisher reports. The mammoth Knight Ridder Corp., which owns the Philadelphia Inquirer and 31 other newspapers, is on the auction block, and there might be no bidders.

Newspapers are one of the glories of modern Western civilization. They have, on the whole, probably never been better written, edited and produced than they are today. But their future is in doubt.

So, is this the twilight of printed news? Should the scribes of instant history be hunting-and-pecking their industry's obituary?

The answer is probably no. "I've never been a believer that print will die," said technology writer and blogger Edward Cone of North Carolina. "I think print has a lot of advantages. It's a useful form. It's profitable, it's disposable, and you can roll it up and hit the dog with it."

But the nation's daily newspapers are certainly changing fast, and to understand their future it may be useful to glance at their past.

H.L. Mencken - reporter, writer and iconoclast - was perhaps the most influential journalist of his age, as big a star in the 1920s and early 1930s as The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, NBC's Tim Russert and Fox News' Bill O'Reilly rolled into one.

Mencken's name, of course, will be forever linked with three things: his newspaper, The Sun; his magazine, the American Mercury; and his mammoth scholarly work, The American Language. But he began his career and made his reputation as the sage, seer and iconoclast of the Jazz Age by writing columns in a genre that has almost become extinct: the evening newspaper.

After working at The Sun, Mencken wrote "The Free Lance," and later a Monday column, for The Evening Sun for the better part of three decades.

The publication, launched by the publishers of The Sun in 1910, was often confused with its sister morning paper. But for much of its history The Evening Sun was a completely separate newspaper, with its own staff of editors and reporters and a distinct identity.

Evening newspapers were more than just separate publications. They practiced their own style of journalism, one that suited Mencken's love of raising hell.

Morning readers tended to prefer their news straight-faced and serious. Afternoon readers were different. They wanted to be entertained rather than educated, preferring news of crime, sports and local politics, spiced with strong opinions.

The afternoon papers ran many editions, updating stories throughout the day, getting the stock market closings and the racetrack results in the final edition.

Journalism in the afternoon flourished until after World War II, when it was weakened by changes in demographics, technology and the American economy.

Evening papers bore the brunt of competition with the upstart technologies, radio and television. No longer were they the place to go for the latest news.

There were delivery problems too. As Americans moved to the suburbs, trucks trying to deliver afternoon papers got snarled in rush-hour traffic.

By the 1990s, there were few cities with more than one major daily newspaper. It was the morning papers that survived. (The Evening Sun closed in 1995, not long after merging its staff with that of The Sun.) The near-extinction of evening newspapers was the single biggest reason behind the long-term decline in circulation, according to a 2004 report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

But just as most evening papers had vanished, new technologies revolutionized news delivery again. The Internet appeared. Computers flooded into homes and offices. By the beginning of this year, most homes were wired for high-speed Internet service.

Today the technology is in place to deliver up-to-the-minute news stories to millions of readers all day for next to nothing. Written news is certainly in demand. Americans are so hungry for it, they have started to produce it themselves in the form of Web logs, or blogs. The Internet giants Google and Yahoo have created Web sites that gather and repackage news from newspapers and wire services around the world.

Newspapers have slowly, fitfully, but inevitably changed in the face of the new competitive pressures. "People don't get their news from the newspaper anymore," said Cone, exaggerating slightly.

With the task of delivering information in so many different hands, today newspaper readers get far more analysis, features and commentary than before. Increasingly, the paper provides context and spots trends.

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