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.