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When newspapers were on the rise — a newsstand at a Boston T station in 1902.
When newspapers were on the rise — a newsstand at a Boston T station in 1902.(Boston City Archives)

An expert from Harvard and the editor of The New York Times are both sounding warnings that newspapers are ailing and may be perched on the edge of a precipitous decline.

Times editor Dean Baquet predicted at a media conference Friday that “most local newspapers in America are going to die in the next five years, except for the ones that have been bought by a local billionaire.”

“The greatest crisis in American journalism is the death of local news,” he said at the International News Media Association’s World Congress of News Media in New York.

“I don’t know what the answer is, but I think that everybody who cares about news — myself included, and all of you — should take this on as an issue. Because we’re going to wake up one day and there are going to be entire states with no journalism or with little tiny pockets of journalism. . . . I’m not worried about Los Angeles and New York. I don’t know what the model is for covering the school boards in Newark, N.J. That makes me nervous,” he said in comments posted by INMA on its website.

The newspaper industry has been declining in recent years. The Associated Press reported in March, based on data gathered by the University of North Carolina, that more than 1,400 cities and towns across the United States had lost a newspaper over the past 15 years. The Wall Street Journal reported that local newspapers are failing to make the digital transition that larger players have — and “time is running out.” The Financial Times reports that many are turning into thin “ghost newspapers.”

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Nicco Mele, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, offered a dire prediction similar to Baquet’s.

Mele, a former deputy publisher of the Los Angeles Times, said Tuesday in a telephone interview that he predicts half of all daily and weekly newspapers will disappear by the end of 2021.

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The primary reason, he said, will be a decline in revenue from preprints, or inserts, the glossy advertising circulars with coupons that come with newspapers.

The preprints provide a significant amount of advertising revenue to most newspapers, he said, and it’s “very clear that almost all of it is going away.” Without them, “the economics of the paper get very hard to make any sense.”

He said two forces are working against the preprint coupons: shopper reward programs and online shopping that sends people “looking for deals online” rather than carrying coupons into brick-and-mortar stores.

“There’s just a tipping point in the economics after which there’s a sudden collapse,” Mele said.

Mele said the decline of newspapers will be bad for democracy. For example, he said, there are 21 US states that once sent correspondents to Washington that no longer do.

“That’s 42 US senators that don’t get questions from hometown journalists,” said Mele, who is working on a book about the impact of the death of local journalism on politics.

Is there any solution?

“There’s a number of people trying to figure out what solutions might look like,” he said. “I have confidence in the long run. In the short run, I think it could be kind of brutal.”