After having briefly reflected on the secular decline in the influence of newspapers, I was able to put a little perspective to it when I stumbled upon a timely bit about one Northeastern paper at the turn of the nineteenth century.
In 1898, circulation of the New York Journal had reached 800,000. That was before the introduction of truly national newspapers like the contemporary US Today or even the reach of today's NYT. The US boasted 74 million people, about 60% (roughly 45 million) of whom were over the age 18. Of those, around 93% (about 41 million) were literate enough to write their own names. That comes to one paper for every 51 potential readers.
Today, the Wall Street Journal has a global circulation of just over 2 million, including its online offering (which comprises just under half of its total subscription base). That number is inflated by bulk deliveries to places like college campuses and hotels. Even with these major qualifications, the number of papers per reader is paltry by comparison to that of the New York Journal on the eve of America's entry onto the colonial stage. The contemporary US has at least 301 million people, 75% (226 million) of whom are over the age of 18, around 99% (224 million) of whom can read and write with basic proficiency. That comes to, using the global number as if all copies ended up in the eyesight of Americans, one paper for every 112 potential readers.
This per capita advantage of more than 2-to-1 for the newspapers of old comes in spite of drastic reduction in the cost of distribution (online, and also through local printing presses for national papers) and a drastic increase in disposable income (it took about 1,500 hours of work to feed a family for a year then, as opposed to 260 hours today).
The media fragmentation is only going to become increasingly more pronounced. It's happened across the media spectrum; Papers, television (from three major networks to literally thousands of available channels), satellite radio, and of course the internet, which allows for communication in any of these mediums, from any source anywhere in the world, to be made accessible through your computer monitor (or phone, or blackberry) in the form of podcasts for radio and tv, directly through sites like YouTube, and from blogs and other sites, whenever you fancy having them.
I'm stating the obvious, I know. But it has implications not only for papers like the WSJ that are facing a looming threat to profitability that isn't going away in the foreseeable future, but also to the way average people see the world.
Because I now feel closer to some of the folks I regularly interact with on the internet than I do with some of my neighbors that I don't know well, it seems to me more crucial than ever that I have as much in common with the neighbors as possible. Since we're not spending as much face-to-face time getting to know one another as my parents did with their neighbors, less amiability is going to be cultivated. So to the extent that it is possible, it needs to be their by default.
Demographic trends in the US are trending in the opposite direction, however, with more languages being spoken, varying cultural norms and mores coming into closer contact with one another, wider income disparities existing in the same local area, and competing belief systems trying to exert influence on a limited public space that is increasingly being shared by more and more special interests.
I don't see this as a good thing. Samuel Huntington predicts this century will be one dictated by the clash of civilizations. Expanding his definition of civilization to include more than social and economic cultural differences to include innate factors, I agree. But the clash is going to occur within polyglot civilizations (at least those who allow other civilizations to grow and fester within them), as well as between them along their most conspicuous boundaries.