In a period when newspaper headlines shout about takeovers and hefty profits of media properties, it may be forgotten that the marketplace can also decapitate news outlets.
Last year the number of U.S. dailies shrank again -- down to 1,688 -- a loss of 13 from 1983. There has been an almost steady funeral march marking the death of afternoon papers. While morning papers have a better survival record, last week's Editor and Publisher magazine noted that two major morning papers lost readers in the recent six months: "A development new to this reporting period is the falling circulation of two big national newspapers -- the Wall Street Journal (down 91,970 to 1,990,025) and USA Today (down 122,007 to 1,162,606)." The Post gained a few thousand.
Overall, papers have gained a bit in circulation, with Editor and Publisher tabulating 63.3 million last year, about 26 percent of the population.
A recent trip to Sweden, where 80 percent of the population regularly reads a morning paper and many Swedes read two or more newspapers, gave me a glimpse of a unique approach to keeping newspapers alive, one I do not advocate but found interesting.
After the death of many Swedish publications in the postwar period, Parliament (the Riksdag) adopted a program of subsidies. Financed partly by a tax on advertising, it is managed by a council consisting of eight members appointed by the government, including representatives of each of the five political parties. The assistance is mostly grants and lesser amounts in loans or tax and postage concessions. The principal criterion for aid is that the newspaper must have less than 50 percent circulation among the adult households in the city of publication.
While American editors shudder at the very notion of anewspaper subsidy, Swedish editors whom I met said the strict nonpartisan rules under which the council operated had achieved stabilization of shaky publications without intruding on their editorial integrity.
One editor of a small politically independent paper told me bluntly, "Without the subsidy we would have had to close up." But aid is not limited to small papers. The nation's largest conservative daily, the Stockholm Svenska Dagbladet, receives millions of kroner each year in government help.
The Swedish press scene has other unusual aspects. Since 1969 it has had a press ombudsman serving as "a mediator between the general public and the newspapers." Unlike American ombudsmen who serve individual newspaper readerships and also indulge in press criticism, the Swedish press ombudsman is appointed by a committee consisting of representatives of the journalism profession, the Swedish Bar Association and the Parliamentary Ombudsman.
The more serious or stubborn complaints are passed along, after investigation, to a six-member Press Council consisting of persons selected by the publishers' association, the journalists' union, the national press club, Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Swedish Bar Association. The chairman is a Supreme Court judge chosen by the five.
Under a voluntary code agreed to by all newspapers, the Press Council may censure a paper, levy an administrative fine, and affected papers are expected to print the decision.
A second difference is that the name of an individual suspected or convicted of a crime is not published unless he or she is a public person -- for example, a politician, senior civil servant, union leader or company manager -- and even there the crimes have to be related to their work. The withholding is to avoid complicating rehabilitation to society and to spare family distress.
While these techniques work for Sweden, I doubt that any of the approaches has much appeal to Americans. But then we should remember that Sweden has a history of legislative ideas that were picked up by this country decades later -- Social Security, unemployment compensation and public housing, to name only a few.