Have a happy, and more importantly safe, Casimir Pulaski Day.
With little fanfare and minimal attention in the mainstream media, the century-and-a-half old Rocky Mountain News published its final issue last week. The Denver market proved unable to sustain two daily newspapers even after the News and the Denver Post quasi-merged (maintaining separate editorial staffs) in 2001 in an effort to remain solvent. The shuttering of the News surprised no one, as Scripps had been attempting to sell the money-losing enterprise for several months.
Further west the San Francisco Chronicle, the crown jewel of the Hearst empire, is on death's door. A company whose founder was once so insanely wealthy that he built this and inspired Citizen Kane will be without a daily paper in a major city if the Chronicle collapses. The trouble out west is not atypical. The entire Tribune corporation (including the Chicago Tribune and L.A. Times) is in bankruptcy as is the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the jointly owned Philadelphia Inquirer / Daily News. Other titans like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post are scarcely doing better. In short, the long-expected demise of the newspaper industry may be at hand courtesy of the reduction in advertising expenditures contomitant to the financial collapse.
Like most Americans I used to read the newspaper (specifically the Chicago Tribune) religiously but no longer do so. In this instance the conventional wisdom about the internet killing print news is accurate. I get nothing from reading the newspaper except day-old news and syndicated editorials I can easily find online. In the blink of an eye newspapers went from being the sole provider of hard news – TV and radio being widely recognized to provide little substance – to being, in essence, a vehicle for delivering coupons and auto dealer advertisements to old people. They have become Matlock, a way to distract and entertain the elderly for an hour every morning.
On Saturday I picked up a Trib for the first time in years and the experience was shocking. What was once a half-inch stack of newsprint now looks like a comic book. It has been pared down to three sections (Main/National, Metro & Finance, and Sports). The main section contains two or three pages of Chicago news followed by ten pages of AP Wire reprints, closing with the obligatory syndicated columnists who appear in every paper. The Finance and Sports sections are mostly filler, old stock prices and box scores. The bulk of this skeletal excuse for a paper was fluffed out with ads. The really local paper (the tiny Joliet Herald News) is even sadder – essentially two pages of police blotter entries and a page of high school sports sandwiched among a few car ads. Who reads this? Who bothers subscribing? Well, it is worth noting that I read these two papers at my dad's house (age: 58) and even he, age and all, admitted that they're not worth reading anymore.
The death of the industry was signalled by two major events. First, the advent of widespread internet use in the late 1990s began exerting downward pressure on newspaper subscriptions, ad rates, and street sales. Second, the industry reacted to this pressure in the worst possible way: by cutting the things that were their only competitive advantages over the internet competition. They fired columnists and replaced them with syndication. They did less local reporting and more cut-and-paste from Reuters and the AP Wire. In other words, they tried to save money by turning to more of the exact content that readers were so easily able to get online at no cost. Thus the industry's decline turned into a steep nosedive.
I am something of a Luddite and I mourn the idea that the newspaper industry may disappear almost entirely for largely sentimental reasons. Print journalism has played a major role in the political history of this nation and is woven into our social fabric. But sentiment and meaningful history were insufficient to save the locomotive or the telegraph and it is looking less likely that the newspaper can avoid the same fate. This presents some major problems. Internet news is dangerous in that it allows users complete control over what news they will consume. Unlike a paper or even a TV news broadcast the internet exposes readers to no news that he or she does not consciously choose to read. This will only exacerbate the "I make my own reality; I decide what's true and selectively consume news that supports my conclusions" tendencies which are already strong in Americans. Furthermore, the collapse of print media outlets will reduce the number of working, professional journalists in an era in which we need more dirt-digging and quality reporting than ever before. In a world in which everything is left to bloggers, freelancers, and stringers we can expect marked decreases in both the breadth and depth of reporting. We'll get exactly what we don't need – more opinion, less facts.
Truthfully I'd rather see the industry collapse than to survive putting out the pitiful excuses for major newspapers that we see today. In either case I can't shake the feeling that I'll be explaining the role and relevance of newspapers to my children as we gaze upon one mounted on a wall in a museum.