Newspapers Have Been Dying Since the '50s

The Wire Baltimore City Sun newsroom

Debra J. Saunders has an impassioned rant in today's San Francisco Chronicle about how we'll all be sorry when newspapers are dead:

News stories do not sprout up like Jack's bean stalk on the Internet. To produce news, you need professionals who understand the standards needed to research, report and write on what happened. If newspapers die, reliable information dries up. ...

I wonder who will be around in five years to cover stories. Or what talk radio will talk about when hosts can't just siphon from carefully researched stories, because they never were written.

Saunders blames the web and ideologically motivated haters for the demise of newspapers, but she ignores the fact that major dailies have been dying for decades, long before the Internet came along. Back in the '50s when Saunders was a child, the legendary journalist A.J. Liebling devoted numerous New Yorker articles to the sad demise of major papers and the societal hole that each left behind when the presses rolled to a halt. The industry has been dying for as long as many of us have been alive. Multiple newspaper towns became two paper towns, morning and afternoon. Two-paper towns became single-paper towns, usually when one paper killed the other. I can still remember where I was on Dec. 8, 1991, when I heard the news that the Dallas Times-Herald had been bought for $55 million and immediately shut down by the rival Dallas Morning-News. When a paper dies, a sizeable chunk of its readership doesn't move to another paper. People just break the habit. Even though half the reporters in town were gone, I don't recall any stories in the News back then lamenting the stories that would never be written.

Now that even the last paper standing in many cities is at risk of closure, we're supposed to agonize over the loss in a way that those papers never mourned the death of their cross-town rivals. Does Saunders realize that every paper left in this country has been cutting costs by dropping experienced reporters and limiting beats as fast as it can? The reporting she thinks we'll miss -- enterprise stories, investigative reports and government watchdog news -- is already a shadow of its former self. Former reporter David Simon devoted the final season of his TV series The Wire to the decimation of his old employer, the Baltimore Sun. By the end his alter ego, a long-time city editor named Gus, had been relegated to the copy desk with his most knowledgeable reporters shown the door. Most of the experienced reporters and editors who do the kind of journalism Saunders celebrates aren't in the newsroom any more. They got fired, bought out or took early retirement.

Saunders also ignores the role that massive debt has played in the economic troubles of our remaining dailies. Newspaper chains and other big media corporations have been gobbling up papers for years by borrowing to the hilt, counting on future profits to stay fat. A July 2008 Bloomberg article shows that the newspaper chains were overleveraged even before the current economic bust. The blogosphere and talk radio did not make the Gordon Gekkos who own newspapers saddle their publications with crushing piles of debt that require constant cost-cutting to finance.

I love newspapers. I began reading the Times-Herald when I was eight years old, delivered papers as a teen, majored in journalism, married a journalist and got my first job out of college at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I will read them until the last one folds.

But if we really begin to see major cities left without a single daily newspaper, I believe that it will create opportunities for leaner, more focused, more Internet-savvy media operations. There also will be more altruistic efforts to cover the news, like what's happening in Southern California with the non-profit Voice of San Diego.

Voice of San Diego is a four-year-old, 11-member news outlet that's funded by charitable foundations and reader donations. It began with the mission to "consistently deliver ground-breaking investigative journalism for the San Diego region" and "increase civic participation by giving citizens the knowledge and in-depth analysis necessary to become advocates for good government and social progress."

I don't believe there will be no news without newspapers. If journalism meets an essential need for an informed citizenry, something else will arise in their place to meet that need.


I love it whenever a journalist tell us how important she is / newspapers are.

It's like an ugly chick telling you how good-looking she is.

If it were true, she wouldn't have to try to convince us of it.

I'm unimpressed by newspaper employees going on about the wonders of newspapers. I used to read the local newspaper every day as a kid, but as my own knowledge of the world increased I noticed that whenever newspapers covered a topic I knew something about, that coverage displayed abysmal ignorance, blatant bias, or both. As a result, newspapers have long since lost their credibility in my eyes.

The way I see it now, if they all go away, I'll just have to read the press releases from the government and major corporations direct from the source.

I work in an office digitizing documents, and we've done work for newspapers in the past. Newspapers before the 1940s were different - their articles were full of opinion and charged words, and they toss in what amount to humorous (and sometimes off-color) anecdote-jokes in amongst the actual articles - in fact, they were very blog-like in content and form, and the smaller the town paper, the more blog-like it was. At some point, newspapers moved to the sterile simplicity of the inverted-pyramid and 6th grade reading level, which doesn't encourage empassioned reading. Like most newspeople point out, the method and practice of reading newspapers isn't flawed, but few look at the actual readability of the content they sell. Do people want to buy a newspaper full of dry factual reporting that doesn't require an interested reader to get past the headline, repeating verbatim content the reader can get elsewhere, and broken up with huge swaths of advertising? The answer has been "no" for a long time, but few newspapers have tried very hard to tweak their content. People READ newspapers, and newspapers have been progressively making themselves less readable for years.

"If journalism meets an essential need for an informed citizenry, something else will arise in their place to meet that need"

Isn't this an unfalsifiable, Panglossian, hypothesis?

Basically, by definition we cannot be living in other than the best of all possible worlds, since if there was a better one, it would happen.

That's not what I'm trying to say. We don't get things by virtue of the fact that we want them.

But if an informed citizenry in one of the most affluent countries in the world truly has an essential need for the news -- "essential" meaning right up there with food, water and shelter -- would the death of newspapers really leave that need unmet? It's like thinking that if grocery stores all go under, we'll never be able to buy tomatoes again.

This may not be the best of all possible worlds, but it's definitely in the top 5.

Re: your comment Rogers - we also wouldn't know if the tomatoes were tainted with harmful bacteria unless we forced ourselves to watch television news - something I do only for amusement.
I do mourn the passing of the Rocky Mountain News.

How about more like a sane system of national health care?

I do mourn the passing of the Rocky Mountain News.

As a former resident of Denver, I'm sorry to see it die, but not surprised that there's one less two-newspaper town.

It seems to me that an online venture could start up with that name and domain, and a small staff, and make some money covering local Denver to the hilt. I'm surprised they didn't try that route first before shutting the doors.

I sympathize with the tiredness that this conversation can provoke. Certainly I was feeling tired of the conversation when I wrote "Journalism has been dying for my whole life and I want to see it dead!"

I'm currently living in Charlottesville, Virginia. It has a daily newspaper, but it is a bit of a joke. It keeps getting thinner and thinner. I expect it to disappear soon.

The town also has long had one free weekly, which is quite good. In the last few years, a second free weekly opened. They are both terrific. They are the true newspapers of the town. The daily does not register on anyone's radar. If you want intelligent writing about the town's politics or the music scene, then you read the free weeklies.

One of the best biographies I've ever read, by former WSJ arts & leisure editor Raymond Sokolov...

The fact of the matter is, it's daily newspapers that are dying... The untold story is that while daily papers are dying, weekly newspapers are thriving -- particularly free-circulation weekly newspapers.

It's no accident that Debra Saunders is worried about the future of daily newspapers. Her hown daily, The San Francisco Chronicle, is itself in danger of closure by the Hearst Corporation.

The demise of the Chronicle would be highly ironic, in that Hearst bought the paper in 2000 after selling off its longtime flagship daily, the afternoon San Francisco Examiner.

The Examiner, thought left for dead, is still very much alive -- and thriving. The secret? The paper's new owners, Clarity Media, converted the Examiner from a paid-circulation daily to a free-circulation one.

So if Hearst closes the Chronicle, its former flagship daily -- which it sold rather than close to comply with the last will and testament of William Randolph Hearst to preserve the paper "in perpetuity" -- would become the pre-eminent newspaper in the City by the Bay.

It would also force many other daily newspapers to convert to free-circulation -- and put top priority on local news -- in order to survive. Fewer and fewer Americans -- especially young people -- are willing to pay to read news that they can read for free on the Internet.

> It would also force many other daily newspapers to convert to free-circulation

The free weeklies here in D.C. do a fine job covering nightlife, recipes, fitness trends and shoes. Their advertisers are bars, bike shops and futon stores.

People do eventually grow up and need real newspapers.

Hasten the day when we read our paper on a portable E-paper please, beamed wirelessly or via Near-Field Communication from the newsbox or news vendor. It's not free but it doesn't charge cellular airtime and you don't need a subscription either.

> Fewer and fewer Americans -- especially young people -- are willing to pay to read news that they can read for free on the Internet.

How are you going to read news for free on the Internet when no one is being paid to report it? Where will you get Pulitzer class stories from the Rocky when there is no more Rocky? Ever met a reporter for Google News? Me neither.

The problem with the idea that only trained journalists can really cover the news is that journalists haven't been trained, not in the way that matters, for decades. Real-world experience can't be replaced by journalism school degrees.

Furthermore, the last 10 years (and more) have been object lessons in the lack of professionalism of upper-level journalists, and more recently objectivity has been first abandoned, then denounced. Not a recipe for success.

"Where will you get Pulitzer class stories from the Rocky when there is no more Rocky? Ever met a reporter for Google News? Me neither."

Wow, your insights are amazing! Because, clearly, no reporter works for Google News! I totally get it! Google News doesn't have reporters! So Google News doesn't do original reporting! And, of course, the future will be exactly like it is today! Because the web is static and never changes! And since there are few big web sites doing original reporting in early 2009, we know for certain that there won't be any big web sites doing original reporting in 2014, or 2019, or 2024!

As a Brit, we have a very different newspaper paradigm from you in America.
There are some regional newspapers - usually based on specific cultural identities and economies: such as the Scottish (national) and Welsh newspapers.
We even used to have national (as in UK rather than England) newspapers based outside London... historical "Fleet Street" still persists as a pseudonym for "the print media" even though the last newspapers based there moved out a decade or two ago.

What I notice is that newspapers, and "news media" in general seems to have lunged for the extremes in shock and horror headlines and "journo-porn" - take the recent competitive fetishistic orgy over who can break the worst economic news story over the (if you believe what you read) the vertical economic armageddon we are on the precipice of - it speaks only of the marriage of the desperation to retain readers in a changing information environment and vain journo career advancement.

...what a career though, when I worked for PA, they only seemed to advertise for "New Media" & Sport reporters, who were expected to have a masters in journalism, and accept a pathetic 11,000 a year!

However, the information revolution means that we no longer need "middle men" such as these to act as benevolent information overseers... we can as primary sources ourselves publish largely what we like, and gather largely what info we like from all over the world; ergo, much like other media industries, the stuctures and systems of old are becoming increasingly irrelevant with armies of willing and competent volunteers to shove them aside.

So over here, I no longer have to argue with the BBC or the various other outlets about their content; I don't need to beg for a job and face rejection because I don't conform to their agenda and prejudices - I can do something about it! I can set up my own outlet and erode their importance.

Of course this isn't a complete revolution... you still need credibility checks on info; and doubtless that will come from the reputations of the people themselves rather than any leviathan-like anachronistic dinosaurs like the BBC, ITN, SKY or CNN, FOX, etc...
Human nature being what it is (groupist, like most life forms), agglomerations of news approaches: blogger-confederations will probably coalesce... but will there be any money it? Was there ever any money in it!
It'll be freer from wealthy archons, but the price may well be uncertainty over quality, and a more "viral" news proliferation... beware the mob!

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