Top 25 things vanishing from America: # 23 -- Newspaper classifieds

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This series explores aspects of America that may soon be just a memory -- some to be missed, some gladly left behind. From the least impactful to the most, here are 25 bits of vanishing America.

The Internet has made so many things obsolete that newspaper classified ads might sound like just another trivial item on a long list. But this is one of those harbingers of the future that could signal the end of civilization as we know it. The argument is that if newspaper classifieds are replaced by free online listings at sites like Craigslist.org and Google Base, then newspapers are not far behind them. And if we lose our daily newspapers, or they get severly damaged by cutbacks, then we lose our independent check on our government and we risk living in tyranny.

Newspaper are, of course, dying a slow death caused by cutbacks, with circulation down 3.6% on weekdays and 4.6% on Sundays in 2008 so far. The latest study of readership shows more declines among 18-24-year-olds, and another study says that people in that age group turn first to TV for their news, and to print newspapers a distant fifth.

Most newsrooms have suffered deep layoffs and buyouts, even top tier ones like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. The Boston Globe just floated a 10% wage cut proposal. There are very few newspapers left with foreign bureaus or bureaus in other cities (even Washington, D.C.). The latest trend is to cut arts coverage and let go film, TV, music and art critics. Some small papers are going out of print completely, like two papers recently did in Wisconsin.

Is this all because of the death of print classified advertising? No, but that was a major revenue source. You can also blame ad dollars continuing to migrate to the web and TV, and subscribers dwindling because they get their news elsewhere (like AOL, for instance). Then there's the rising cost of paper, travel, gas and everything else. Newspapers just can't make it anymore.

Determining the fate of civilization in the absence of newspapers, however, is more complicated, because the Internet is working out a solution for delivering the news. Independent media is alive and well, and even doing better in the digital age than our traditional mainstream news media, which has long suffered at the hands of major corporations.

Update: these comments are even more prescient in light of the bankrupcy of the Tribune Company and the announcement that both Detroit dailies were cutting back home delivery to three days a week.

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