We’ve featured 1974 a number of times in the first two months of this blog. Don’t worry — the geographic span of our entries will even out over time. As always, check out the About page if you’re new here and don’t know what we’re going on about.
Not too long ago, we held forth on the ever-increasing price of gasoline.
This week, we pick another calendar entry — from the same year — that shows the price of yet another commonplace household good going inexorably higher.
The difference between this product and gasoline is that Americans, by and large, have decided they can live without it.
My grandfather’s hoard of historical newspapers includes a number of New York Daily News editions, alongside the hometown Stamford Advocate.
I don’t believe he took both papers every day. (If he had subscribed to the Daily News, he wouldn’t have been so focused on its newsstand price.) But clearly he bought the Daily News often enough to want to make a special note to himself when its cost went up.
In a town with ready access to all the New York papers, why would he choose that particular one?
The Daily News, launched this month in 1919, advertised itself as “NEW YORK’S PICTURE NEWSPAPER” for more than 70 years. I’ve always thought that my grandfather, an avid amateur photographer, would have been drawn to a paper that put such a premium on images. (Since 1991, the Daily News’ slogan has been the much less grabby “New York’s Hometown Newspaper,” though it continues to use a stylized image of an old Speed Graphic camera as its logo.)
He might also have developed a taste for the Daily News in the era when it was the USA Today of its day — in terms of popularity, not content. In the 1940s and ’50s, the paper boasted a daily circulation of more than 2 million, making it the biggest newspaper in the country. The paper’s daily circulation today is somewhere around 515,000 copies, ranking it as America’s sixth-largest paper.
And maybe my grandfather liked the Everyman tone of the Daily News, which at its best has been one of America’s great tabloid papers. Two years after this calendar entry, Billy Joel would name-drop the paper in his song “New York State of Mind” — “But now I need a little give-and-take / The New York Times / The Daily News” — deftly summing up the contrast between the institutional paper-of-record tone of the Good Gray Lady and the feistier, from-the-streets approach of the Picture Newspaper.
Today’s New York Daily News has a newsstand price of 75 cents. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ handy inflation calculator says 15 cents in 1974 would have the purchasing power of 68 cents today. So, New York’s Hometown/Picture Newspaper is yet another example of a consumer good whose price increases have outpaced inflation.
Of course, the determination of a newspaper’s worth is based on much more than the amount of change you have to fish out to buy it.
Does the 2011 Daily News contain as much actual news as it did in 1974? How has its political slant changed from then to now? How about its editorial priorities, in terms of the stories it covers and the play it gives them? How about its quality control? The answers to at least some of these questions will vary from reader to reader, which makes judging the value of a newspaper over the years considerably harder than, say, judging the value of a bag of potato chips.
What’s indisputable is that Americans have decided that all newspapers aren’t worth as much to them as they were in my grandfather’s day. The daily circulations of major papers like the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe have fallen by practically half over the past 20 years. (I won’t get into why circ has declined so much, because an analysis of the issue would more than fill this blog. Maybe some other entry.)
When circulation declines, ad revenue drops, since advertisers aren’t reaching as many people. When ad revenue drops, cutbacks in staff and coverage follow, since ads cover the cost of putting reporters and photographers on the street. And when staffing and coverage get cut back, circulation declines — again.
A journalism professor I interviewed in my days as a reporter described that pattern as a “death spiral.” And while America’s major papers aren’t dropping like flies, they will never regain anything resembling good health until they figure out how to break out of it.
None of that, of course, was visible or predictable in the summer of 1974, when my grandfather found himself digging deep for another nickel to get the news and pictures from New York.
As for summer sizzlers and record heat, we’ll be talking more on that subject in about a month. And no, I have no idea why my aunt went to tha Dirty Jerz for the day.