The other day The New York Times ran a big story on the demise of newspapers across America. Most towns used to have at least two competing papers and now the trend is down to one or maybe none. The recent disappearance of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver is a painful reminder of how even an excellent daily through no apparent fault of its own can die. Easy to blame this on the recession, fewer advertisers, fewer copies sold, less money.
Though there are other factors that are endangering not only newspapers but journalism. If the Internet has had a powerful effect with many people dropping their newspaper habit for free online editions and newsreaders pumping out headlines on their desktops, one of the key problems has been in the industry itself, the massive expansion of newspaper syndicates buying up their competition and expanding ownership like a drugstore chain, then homogenizing their acquisitions to make them fit in with their chain mentality, from reformatting them to look alike, to cutting back on local and national reporting for cheaper wire service copy they paste in.
Even so the syndicates got away with it and went even further, sometimes buying up a town's two or more papers and then merging staffs and centralizing operations in one building, producing two or more lackluster versions of the same paper, with reduced costs and fewer reporters and support staff to pay, ergo more money to make.
The end of this newspaper acquisitions bubble has arrived. Because of the high costs of buying up otherwise successful and profitable papers some chains and their papers are faced with a debt load that is leading them into the red. The Tribune Company chain has already gone into bankrupcy as well as other major holding companies, leaving the future of many papers in doubt. A number of large papers are up for sale. All rather reminiscent of Detroit's long march in buying up all its smaller competitors and having cornered the market, why worry about what people want? We give them what we want. Though many bought-up papers were good and would have been financially sound on their own if they hadn't been acquired.
If Japan came to the rescue of the American car buyers with better and cheaper cars, still the Big Three weren't impressed.
But Japan is hardly going to drop a compact bombshell into the American newspaper market. We're on our own and it doesn't look good.
Even the biggest and most successful chains and papers are cutting back drastically, laying off more and more reporters and staff like the McClatchy chain recently, perhaps the best of the lot, run by newspapermen and women, not just by accountants. Other chains have cut staff even more brutally in an effort to stay alive. Other papers are simply going out of business, axed by chains as so much dead wood. Some Independents are folding too, no longer able to make it on their own with dwindling revenue and some even without a debt load.
Times are remarkably tough. Even big sucessful papers like The Los Angeles Times have cut back their newsroom staffs to half of what they were a few years ago. It's the slow death of what has been called the Fourth Estate, the major force protecting society, the First Estate being us, to counter the power of the other two Estates, now largely beaten by the Press, the Church and the Nobles, except now we have Big Money instead of the nobility practising Feudalism. Without any critical oversight, new Estates like big government and big business run roughshod over the public interest. Would Watergate have broken without some serious and powerful journalism? Would Bush Administration failures have been tackled without some heavy-hitters in the media? Though the fear factor was great enough to silence or muzzle many papers and TV News outlets. We'll probably hear a lot more when journalists screw up their courage to write some history books on the Age of Terror in America.
Some progressive Darwinian capitalists will say that other news organizations will rise to take up the slack as newspapers fail. There's TV journalism and more news on the Internet. Yeah but there are still fewer journalists working and the local 6 0'clock news usually is about as important as the big fire on Maple Street or the car crash in a feeder lane into town. What goes on in City Hall or at the big plant in town, unless some shooter goes in, isn't going to make any airtime.
Still we've got the big network news and CNN, but they don't cover what these disappearing papers do, your local news, nor do they go after the big news stories like newspaper journalists do. It's the soundbite, the talking heads, the usual bull delivered by PR people that happens so fast, TV journalists let it pass without comment or follow-up questions or follow-up stories. No time for all of that. No time to think and write. Ad lib it and move on to the next story. Though the Big Networks still have their in depth coverage here and there and some dedicated newsmagazines like CBS 60 Minutes that do excellent work. A drop in the bucket of airtime though. The promise of CNN as a dedicated news channel hasn't come through either. It's more towards American info-entertainment than hard hitting news or world news. You get bludgeoned with stories too, out of proportion to their value, like hours and hours daily for 2 years of OJ Simpson.
The Internet is nowhere near to picking up the slack either. When these newspapers fail, so do their online editions like the Rocky Mountain News. As The New York Times says no one has been able to figure out how to keep a digital edition going with the poor revenues it generates. People don't like to pay user fees as they already are burning money with Internet connections and paper and ink costs. The hassle factor of having to live on less and work harder for those still above water is another even bigger handicap. Internet News apart from a few success stories like The Huffington Post, follows the newspaper failures, fewer and fewer news sources and fewer journalists.
Bloggers generally haven't taken up the call either for serious journalism. Opinionizing the news is fine and we certainly need more insightful commentary, much more than an Editorial page covering one or two hot issues. In fact we hope journalists who are out of work will take up blogging, but you can't really expect many to do that when they need to pay bills and don't have an organization to back them up, whether it's support staff like newsroom colleagues they can count on for input and research and editing or friendly advice or coffee handy or most of all when you're blogging, a webmaster who handles all the glitches in software and an art department that pastes it all together and the sales people who find the money. Then how can you operate not having the credentials to call up Mr Big on some story or other and a legal department to back up your story when it gets threatened by Mr Big's lawyers?
Bloggers don't have the resources and then most don't have a feeling for journalism or the ethics involved. Being small scale pundits who cross thresholds of boredom and libel, they're generally immune and so keep on badgering or going on pointless rants thinking they're doing great. But ultra-tabloid reporting goes nowhere when you don't have facts to go on. Finally you can't believe the writing which usually isn't good anyway. A BA in English might be a good idea like journalists usually have or at least have something to contribute. Though if you scan the Net with a passion you can find a lot of good work buried under all the chatter, like 2 Blowhards.
As a blogger and journalist, I do think there are ways out of this mess. Thing is people don't like making changes until it's about too late, like Detroit.
The big chains should sell off some of their papers instead of cutting staff further. If it's not a sellers' market, well a lot of papers have dedicated staff who would if they could buy out their owners as a collective. Why is this kind of socialism still a dirty word in America, when Obama has already made it acceptable with government bailouts on Wall Street and in Detroit?
As for me I love a good newspaper, but I don't like wading through a mountain of newsprint to get to a story buried in ads and flyers. I don't like the smudgy ink and the acid smell which gets worse as they yellow. I don't like all the destruction of trees and waste of paper. Smaller dailies still in business could maybe publish fewer editions, say thrice weekly or less. Spend more time researching and writing local and national stories. Maybe analyzing the news would be the big seller, instead of rewrites of press releases or the same wire service copy published everywhere.
More investigative journalism, more aggressive action on important stories. Sounds like the economics wouldn't work, but they could if given the chance. Some people like me would pay more for a glossy paper that wasn't boring and a futile waste of a Saturday afternoon, usually the best newspaper day of the week.
But if some papers do change not only their style but substance, most look like failing because they or their owners won't change. The chance of purely online papers making a success of themselves is still dicey too. For this you've got to blame the major ad content providers like Google AdSense, that allows their ad clients massive free exposure on other peoples' websites, only charging them for click-throughs and only paying a percentage of that to the content providers, the bloggers, magazines and papers online.
Google puts up a $20 million prize for the first private company landing on the moon, but freezes out the people who make the Internet work. Are you listening Google? We love you but what about the people going out of business and the people who put you in business?
Posted by Alan Gillis | 3/13/2009 09:56:00 AM | AdSense, Bloggers, Blogging, Economy, Gillis, Google, Internet, Journalism, Meltdown, News, Newspapers | 0 comments »