Bye-bye, newspapers. If you’re reading this on thin paper that folds and crinkles, has many other things on oversized pages and gets ink on your fingers, then you are helping stem the decline of an endangered species. Sorry to say it, but you may be a dying breed yourself.

Between 1998 and 2005, weekday newspaper readers dropped from 58.6 percent to 51 percent of all adults, according to Newspaper Association of America figures. For 18- to 24-year-olds, the drop was from 43.5 percent to 38.4 percent; and for 25- to 34-year-olds, readership fell even further, from 45.9 percent to 36.8 percent. Younger non-readers are undoubtedly unmarried, since married people read newspapers more often than singles – perhaps to hide behind at breakfast.

Bye-bye to young audiences. Good riddance, some contrarian analysts say. The fact that newspaper readers are older, more educated, more affluent, less likely to be black or Hispanic, and more prevalent in the Northeast makes them a higher-quality target for advertisers, The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi argues. But consider whether that profile represents America’s future or its past.

I agree that newspapers won’t disappear soon. An industry producing something so disposable (good for wrapping fish) has proved rather durable. Still, newspapers must reinvent themselves – beyond putting classified ads on the Web.

As an expert on managing change, I’ve participated in two-decades’ worth of conferences discussing the need for creative solutions for the future of newspapers. Yet the physical product has hardly changed. The bulkier the better, publishers think.

Newspapers don’t have to ignore disinterested potential readers. Niche publications grab young audiences that newspapers lose. For example, School Sports magazine has been growing in local markets while newspapers have reduced coverage of high-school sports.

Wave bye-bye to broadcast television, too. As mass media become niche media, TV suffers from similar afflictions. New media audiences want to be more engaged and in control. They want to:

• Direct the action (video and online game players).

• Produce the package (on-demand viewing; content recorded for replay).

• Create the content (short Web films; blogs).

• Develop their own networks (e-mail communities with pirated content; news spread virally by hitting “forward”).

These consumers are not just the young. A British Broadcasting Corp. brainstorming session on the future of the BBC that I attended included a role-playing grandmother who finds video games more interesting than television.

Of course, every trend contains a possible counter-trend. (“Here’s an innovative idea. Why don’t all of us in our online community watch a movie at the same time every week!”)

In my 2001 book “Evolve!: Succeeding in the Digital Culture of Tomorrow,” I pointed out that new media rarely eliminate old media; they learn to live side by side. The virtual hasn’t replaced the physical. Far from eliminating physical stores, established retailers have taken advantage of e-commerce to reach more customers and serve them flexibly through multiple channels.

Newspapers have been pretty good at developing an Internet presence. The problem is that they haven’t yet answered the question of whether a newspaper is the news or the paper. Will they keep saying bye-bye to their journalists and not to their printing plants? Will they keep focusing on which channel of distribution to favor rather than on the quality of their content? Those would be unfortunate choices.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is a Harvard Business School professor and author of “Confidence.”


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