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You’ll miss the newspapers when they’re gone

For journalists, this decade is turning out to be what the ’70s and ’80s were to steelworkers and autoworkers–the beginning of the end not just for countless jobs but for an entire industry. Richard Perez-Pena of the New York Times offers a deathbed update this morning: the Rocky Mountain News, gone; the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, going; likewise the Tucson Citizen. “At least Denver, Seattle and Tucson still have daily papers,” he writes. “But now, some economists and newspaper executives say it is only a matter of time — and probably not much time at that — before some major American city is left with no prominent local newspaper at all.”

And Perez-Pena neglects to note what may be the most stunning development of all, which is his own paper’s furious scramble in recent months to raise cash in advance of a $400 million debt payment due this spring. The Times got a $250 million investment from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, and more recently sold off most of its Times Square HQ for $225 million.

I’ve stayed away from the newspaper wars of attrition in this space, largely because my MinnPost colleague Dr. Brauer has done such a bang-up job of charting their local descent. But it’s worth pointing out that the newspaper business was in complete freefall even before the economy tanked. The internet has been chewing inexorably away at their ad base and their paid subscriber base. The recession only speeded things up. It’s turned Jim Romenesko’s media blog into the best-read obituary column in America.

If you could trap all the gas that’s been produced by the incessant talk of “finding a web business model that works” for the newspaper business, it might at least power some failing paper’s presses for a day or two. But it hasn’t produced anything resembling a solution. Absent some version of a paid-content model, the economics of the web just don’t support content-based enterprises on the scale of the American newspaper business. And the newspaper business has always been the heart of the American newsgathering process–the only entities big enough to do the day-in, day-out yeoman’s work of collecting and compiling information on a massive scale. Newspapers break most of the rocks that TV, radio, web-only publications and blogs use to pave their content niches.

“Information wants to be free” has been the slogan of the internet revolution, but in a market economy that’s true only if information gatherers want to live in discarded washing machine boxes. Viewed from a different angle, the whole saga is also the story of our peculiarly American consumerist delight in thinking we’re getting something for nothing. The real cost always manifests itself eventually. 

The media historian Paul Starr (whose book The Creation of the Media is one of the best books on the subject I’ve ever read) wrote a long and angry elegy to the American newspaper, “Goodbye to the age of newspapers (Hello to a new era of corruption,” in the New Republic a couple of weeks ago. You should read it.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Paul Scott on 03/12/2009 - 09:53 am.

    Magazines too. I keep wondering when it is going to dawn on my seemingly intelligent coterie of friends and relatives who refuse to subscribe to any newspapers or magazines that they have screwed themselves.

    At least musicians could continue to work after file-sharing. Journalism has no answer for our technological progress, which is about to turn us into a highly entertained bunch of know nothings. The technology alarmists appear to have been right about a few things.

    Already long used to hand to mouth, I was down to two magazine employers this month and yesterday one of them folded. (R.I.P. Best Life, which allowed me to write about topics that many “progressive” magazines found too unsexy, like marketing to kids and the ridiculous fitness industry.)

  2. Submitted by William Souder on 03/12/2009 - 10:23 am.

    Well said, Mr. Perry. I don’t know if it is surprising, but it’s certainly disappointing that the public seems unconcerned about the demise of the American newspaper–and the loss of all that it stands for and does. I’m not worried that we’ll miss newspapers when they’re gone…I’m worried that too many of us won’t.

  3. Submitted by Ross Williams on 03/12/2009 - 12:07 pm.

    News not only wants to be free, news wants to be noticed. Which is why something will replace newspapers.

    Most of the news in a newspapers isn’t so much “gathered” as it is passed along from the news sources that created it. There are far more public relations operations creating “news” than there are journalists. Those operations will find ways to put news in front of the public whether newspapers exist or not.

    Now, that could be a problem since there is no one qualifying that news and putting it in context. But its also possible that those new distribution outlets will result in far more transparent than the current journalism model with its unnamed sources. If you get your news from the State Department web site, you know the source. If you read it in the New York Times you may well be told the source was “western diplomats”.

    This is not to say something isn’t lost when we lose newspapers. But something may be gained as well. And not just that we can get the news when we want it instead of waiting for it to be delivered tomorrow. Or that we can check multiple sources. Or that stories can be immediately fact checked. All of which make online news a better product than what you get in newspapers

  4. Submitted by Paul Scott on 03/12/2009 - 01:47 pm.

    Actually, news generally doesn’t want to be noticed. Writers do, perhaps, and that drives the collections of untold stories, but the only thing that wants to be noticed, as you mention, is publicity, which there has been too much of at the root of most news stories. But talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater…

    What’s missing from the hopeful predictions of Mr. Williams is a recognition that the future he envisions creates a news audience utterly fragmented and hyper-individualized into ineffectuality, thereby diminishing the likelihood of reporting to cut through the buzz of the noisy new emptiness, not to mention, get paid. Having fact checked for national magazines, I find his idea that everyday readers will be able or willing to fact check articles on their own a tad optimistic.

    I find the idea that we are lucky for instant news reflective of little more than the value system of TV — does the writer have any idea how many important stories are not told because of this one-dimensional news-gathering value system?

    Give me anonymous sources from trusted publications over the fragmented future of news any day.

  5. Submitted by Ross Williams on 03/12/2009 - 07:28 pm.

    “the only thing that wants to be noticed, as you mention, is publicity,”

    There is very little, if anything, on the front page of the New York Times that would go unreported if the Times ceased to publish. You can argue that there are important stories buried in the back pages of the Times that might never be reported, but I doubt it. The sources for those stories would find a way to tell their story.

    “which there has been too much of at the root of most news stories.”

    Are we talking about real news as we currently get it, or some ideal of it?

    “Give me anonymous sources from trusted publications over the fragmented future of news any day.”

    Is there more reason to trust the NYT’s sources than there is Moody’s bond ratings? In both cases, these “trusted” sources have turned out to be less than trustworthy and for much the same reason.

    “thereby diminishing the likelihood of reporting to cut through the buzz of the noisy new emptiness”

    Again, the reality is that newspapers are largely about creating noise, not cutting through it. The media just buzzes louder than anyone else. I suppose it is reassuring to have simple stories with a single clear narrative, rather than all those diverse voices. But that doesn’t mean they do a better job of informing people.

    “Having fact checked for national magazines, I find his idea that everyday readers will be able or willing to fact check articles on their own a tad optimistic.”

    Then you aren’t paying attention. Most online sources provide the opportunity for anyone to check and correct facts. That means if a writer gets a fact wrong or chooses to leave out information that detracts from his preferred narrative, it will likely be added by someone else. At least if it is important.

    All of us like to see ourselves as indispensable. But none of us are, including newspapers and journalists.

  6. Submitted by Paul Gillin on 03/13/2009 - 06:28 am.

    Starr’s New Republic piece was a bloated academic sermon with little new insight. Here’s a time-saving summary. A much better and more readable essay is Eric Alterman’s analysis in The New Yorker from a year ago.

  7. Submitted by Paul Scott on 03/13/2009 - 12:39 pm.

    Everything ends up online somewhere, true, but so what? WIthout a few large aggregators — PRODUCERS of Reporting able to carry a critical mass of readers, it makes little difference if a story ends up online somewhere, because as I said, and as those blithely cheering the end of newspapers routinely fail to address, the audience for their work has become fragmented into meaninglessness.

    Its not enough to tell a story, Someone has to hear it. Actually a lot of people have to hear it, if it is to have an impact, and that is what the information revolution has inadvertently undermined. All technology bites back in some fashion, this is simply how the information explosion has wrought its unintended consequences. But to see some of us cheering it on is kind of nauseating, to be honest. .Journalists are indeed indispensable. Enjoy your blog.

  8. Submitted by Karen Schell on 03/14/2009 - 01:41 pm.

    Unfortunately the politicization of the print newspaper media assisted in the demise of many of them. People can easily get their preferred “spin” on the news from a multitude of sources and those who just want the news sans spin likewise go elsewhere.

    And I think there’s a bit of dark irony in turning to an online resource for the “eulogy”.

  9. Submitted by Tommy Johnson on 03/14/2009 - 06:20 pm.

    I won’t miss ’em; at least, in today’s format. Media conglomerates have gotten so big, and so completely untrustworthy, they deserve to fail.

  10. Submitted by Ross Williams on 03/15/2009 - 03:40 pm.

    the audience for their work has become fragmented into meaninglessness.

    I doubt it. In fact, the internet makes the wide distribution of stories much easier. Someone can and do quickly share stories they think are interesting or important with their Facebook network, Twitter it to a group of followers and post links in a variety of other forms.

    And aggregating stories is a major part of the internet delivery system. What has changed, is that the decisions about what is important/interesting are made by a large number of people, rather than by a single publisher.

    The result is that young people are much better informed than earlier generations, despite all the angst to the contrary.

  11. Submitted by Tim Walker on 03/16/2009 - 01:34 pm.

    It’s enjoyable to see so many people try to predict the future.

    If the past history of prognostication is any indication, ALL OF YOU WILL BE WRONG! 🙂

    Anyway, what makes me, a daily newspaper reader, sad is that the newpapers have given up on investigative reporting. This was evidenced by the complete lack of digging around the skelton-filled closets of the Bush administration. Or, if a skeleton was inadvertantly found, editors and publishers didn’t have the guts to report on it, for fear that they would be labeled as “left wing” or unpatriotic.

    In other words, the Fourth Estate dropped the ball, because they were afraid that actually reporting hard news and yes, giving it a slant, would alienate some readers (and a loss of market share).

    This skittishness came about when media outlets (not just newspapers) were bought up by businesses that had no interest in and experience in journalism, only making money. (GE buying NBC, for example, or Disney buying ABC, or the new owner of the STrib.)

    So, while I will miss my newspaper somewhat when I no longer get one delivered to my doorstep, what I really miss already are newspapers that actually reported on issues of substance, which haven’t been around for a decade or so.

    Unfortunately, bloggers will not have the time and/or resources to pursue investigative journailsm, which leaves us with no viable Fourth Estate watchdogs.

    And that does not bode well at all.

    At least, that’s my prediction! 🙂

  12. Submitted by steve phillips on 03/17/2009 - 09:52 am.

    Ross sounds like someone who has a stake in “online journalism”. Newspapers were reported dead after the inventions of radio and TV, yet they survived. Why now? I submit it’s driven by a higher force. An uninformed populace is easire taken over. I deliver to stores and machines and I tell you people want the paper more than ever. They just can’t afford them as much as they want. I live in a hurricane zone. After batteries and water people will drive the hazardous roads looking for a paper. They don’t go jumping online, mostly because the electric is out.

    And what about people who can’t afford to be online more and more? What will the onliners do then? Every couple of weeks I hear of someone else dropping their subscription.

    Not to mention the real reason for newspapers in the first place. Lost on today’s populace it seems but they have gone astray from their intended and original purpose….to be a check against bad Government.

    I truly feel we lose newspapers we lose ourselves, the Good Ol’ USA.

  13. Submitted by Anne Geske on 03/17/2009 - 11:06 am.

    Check out this commentary by Clay Shirky, which is among the best I’ve seen on this topic:

    http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/03/newspapers-and-thinking-the-unthinkable/

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