Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The newspaper: the rise and fall of a cultural form?

Once our primary source of daily news, the printed word now competes with the internet, social media and television in an increasingly digital world. Roger Dickinson, from the University of Leicester’s Department of Media and Communication, charts the rise and fall of the newspaper.

The newspaper emerged as a distinct cultural form in early-17th century Europe. It is bound up with the early modern period of history which saw the rise of urbanism and international trade and the emergence of political parties and institutions. As a cultural form, the newspaper has been a topic of interest for social scientists for more than a century.

The first newspapers contained reports of happenings to do with commerce and politics, but printers soon discovered that if these reports appeared alongside entertainment and gossip they would attract more readers. Advertisers quickly caught on and the advertising industry grew rapidly alongside the rise of the newspaper. By the end of the 19th century newspapers had become the source of large profits for their owners – the first ‘press barons’. The daily newspaper has thrived in this form for more than 150 years. In the Western world during the 20th century daily life for most people would have been inconceivable without it. But the newspaper is under threat.

The internet and the World Wide Web have had a profound impact on the newspaper industry. While they have increased the number of sources of news and political comment available to news consumers, and have exposed newspapers to the supply of information and comment from their own readers (as users become producers of news), they have helped to alter the economics on which newspapers are based. Advertisers who once invested in newspapers to reach consumers now spend their money on the internet. While more outlets and platforms for news have become available and affordable, the numbers of people buying and reading printed newspapers have fallen. The potential for huge profits that once attracted the press barons of the 19th and early 20th centuries has all but disappeared.

Interestingly the process of change across the world is uneven and varied. Social scientists have identified a number of factors that are in play, but one that is central to the process of change is consumer preference.

New media forms in some parts of the world are not only more convenient for users because of their speed and accessibility, but are perceived to be more reliable sources of news than the printed media. Social media such as Twitter and Facebook are increasingly important. A recent survey of news consumers in Arab countries showed that Facebook was the third most popular source of news.

In other parts of the world (in China, the Caribbean and some Latin American countries, for example) where for technological or political reasons choice is restricted, printed newspaper businesses are thriving and readership is expanding. As they explore the extraordinary changes taking place in the newspaper industry, social scientists are finding that although the printed newspaper as a cultural form is in decline in the West, globally it is not yet a thing of the past.

Roger Dickinson

Research interests

  • The study of news and the sociology of journalism as an occupation
  • Journalists and the mechanisms of workplace regulation
  • Journalism as an occupational accomplishment
  • The use of social media by journalists

Supervision interests

  • Journalism focussed

Contact details

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