It’s not exactly news what’s happening to newspapers. Or haven’t you heard? Well, when was the last time you picked up a newspaper? Don’t remember? Soon, depending on where you are, you may find there are no newspapers to pick up anymore.
At least one city — possibly San Francisco, Miami, Minneapolis or Cleveland — likely will soon lose its last daily newspaper, analysts say. And it “could be a lot more widespread than people have been predicting,” says Mike Simonton, who tracks media debt for Fitch Ratings.
It’s hard to ignore that possibility as the pace of newspaper closings accelerates.
Starting Wednesday, Hearst’s 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer survives as a scaled-down online publication offering mostly commentary. That leaves The Seattle Times as the city’s only major paper-and-ink daily.
Gannett (GCI), parent of USA TODAY, may shutter the 140-year-old Tucson Citizen, which competes with the Arizona Daily Star, if a buyer can’t be found.
Last month, E.W. Scripps (SSP) closed the Rocky Mountain News, leaving The Denver Post as the city’s sole major daily.
Are these symptoms of a miserable economy that’s pulverizing a handful of high-profile papers, including some owned by companies with unusually crushing debt loads? Or have we reached a tipping point where advertisers and readers are flocking so quickly to digital media that most of the nation’s 1,400 dailies may end up in the morgue?
Now, if you’re like me, it’s been years since you’ve picked up a newspaper to read, unless its one of the free weeklies like our local Washington City Paper or the Washington Blade. When I first moved to D.C., I subscribed to the Washington Post. For a while, it was delivered to my door every morning, and I grabbed it on my way to work to read over lunch.
But after a while, I just started tossing it in the door as I rushed out. Then I’d toss it into recycling when I got home. Then I’d forget to recycle until I had a stack that ended up being a hassle to deal with. So eventually, I stopped subscribing. Instead, I’d get my news from television, usually CNN, and catch the local news in the evening.
Around this time, I started to get more of my news online. Then 9/11 happened, and I was so appalled with failure of so many in media to question the course the Bush administration was steering us towards, and the media’s apparent unquestioning support of the president’s war jones for Iraq, I stopped watching television news, and reading most mainstream media.
In fact, I found a lot of alternative media sources online that took the place of my previous news sources.
Wait. Did I help kill newspapers? Did my internet habit doom an industry? Well, not entirely. First the afternoon papers closed, then the monopoly morning papers took over, expanded, went Wall Street, sold shares, had booms and busts, and then the internet arrived.
Something happened after every bust, newspapers would lose retail and display advertising, and get some of it back, but increasingly more of the ad revenue was coming from classified. Some of us warned that newspapers were almost becoming addicted to classifieds, which are, of course, the most profitable advertising. At some papers, classified accounted for 50 or even 70 percent of total ad revenue.
Then came an era of cheap credit, and chains began to think that if they got big enough the “synergies” would drive down costs and drive up revenue. Chains began to make multiple billion dollar deals. And not just Tribune, which bought Times Mirror, the publisher of the Los Angeles, or Gannett, which was expanding. Even once modest chains began to make blockbuster deals. McClatchy bought all of Knight Ridder getting trophy papers like the Miami Herald. Lee Enterprises, in sleepy Davenport, Iowa, took over Pulitzer, the most famous name in newspapers.
With debt. Lots of debt.
This is where the Internet comes in. The only real competition for classified ads used to be other print products, alternative weeklies or shoppers. But suddenly here comes the Internet — custom-made for classifieds. And Internet people – most famously Craig Newmark of Craigslist – were giving it away for free.
And around that time I became what you might call one of the millions of editors and publishers of what Nicholas Kristof calls (and bemoans as) “The Daily Me.”
When we go online, each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper. We select the kind of news and opinions that we care most about.
Nicholas Negroponte of M.I.T. has called this emerging news product The Daily Me. And if that’s the trend, God save us from ourselves.
That’s because there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.
…The effect of The Daily Me would be to insulate us further in our own hermetically sealed political chambers. One of last year’s more fascinating books was Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.” He argues that Americans increasingly are segregating themselves into communities, clubs and churches where they are surrounded by people who think the way they do.
Kristof mentions his selective blog reading on the Middle East (preferring Juan Cole, with whom he usually agrees, over someone else with whom he doesn’t), which is something I find interesting because as a blogger I do not consider myself a journalist.
1 a: a person engaged in journalism ; especially : a writer or editor for a news medium b: a writer who aims at a mass audience
2: a person who keeps a journal
Or a least not in the same sense as a news reporter who goes out, finds news, and breaks stories that haven’t been published yet. What I do has been called journalism a few times, but I don’t so much report news as I comment on it and attempt to link stories together and put them into a context that shows their relationship.
The result is something like the kind of writing you’d find in a magazine, but I still don’t call myself a journalist. Mainly because there are things journalist can do that I, a professional non-professional blogger (meaning I don’t make my living from my blog) can’t do, as Leonard Pitts points out.
On the day the last newspaper is published, I expect no sympathy card from Kwame Kilpatrick. Were it not for a newspaper – The Detroit Free Press – his use of public funds to cover up his affair with one of his aides would be unrevealed and, he might still be mayor of Detroit.
Nor will I expect flowers from Larry Craig. Were it not for a newspaper – The Idaho Statesman – we would not know of his propensity for taking a “wide stance” in airport men’s rooms and he might still be serving in the U.S. Senate. And I doubt there will be a toast of commiseration from Reynaldo Diaz and Oscar Rivero. Were it not for a newspaper – The Miami Herald – they would still be living large on money scammed from an agency that builds housing for the poor.
In short, the day the last newspaper is published – a day that seems to be rushing at us like a brick wall in an old Warner Bros. cartoon – I will not be surprised if the nation’s various crooks, crumbs and corruptors fail to shed a tear. But the unkindest cut of all, the “Et tu, Brute?” dagger in the back, is the fact that, according to a new survey from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, most other Americans won’t, either. Pew found 63 percent of respondents saying that if their local paper went down, they would miss it very little or not at all.
…And too many of us fail to understand what that death would mean, believe newspapers provide no service they can’t get elsewhere. But there is a reason Craig and Kilpatrick were not taken down by CNN or the local TV news. Local TV news specializes in crime, weather and sports. CNN has a national purview. Even the Internet primarily synthesizes reporting done in other media.
No, only the local paper performs the critical function of holding accountable the mayor, the governor, the local magnates and potentates for how they spend your money, run your institutions, validate or violate your trust. If newspapers go, no other entity will have the wherewithal to do that. Which means the next Blagojevich gets away with it. The next Kilpatrick is never caught. The next Diaz and Rivero laugh all the way to the bank. And the next Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, two innocent men saved from Death Row by the indefatigable reporting of The Miami Herald’s Gene Miller, are executed.
Oh, sure, bloggers have claimed their share of scalps lately (Jeff Gannon and Eason Jordan among them), but not nearly at the level or with the effectiveness that newspapers can. So, I’m all in favor of keeping the newspaper industry alive.
But not at the expense of “The Daily Me.” Sorry, Mr. Kristoff, but I like “The Daily Me” for a number of reasons. For one, it’s given me a voice and an outlet I didn’t have before. Where I was a passive reader of the news before, I’m now an engaged reader, a participant in a way that wasn’t possible before.
Not because I make or break news, or because most bloggers do, but because many of us together can amplify news stories that wouldn’t have gotten much attention beyond local media.
It’s taken a while to see it, but I think I’m starting to notice a pattern. More and more I find I’m taking part in online campaigns in which a group of bloggers — whose cumulative page views and unique visits probably don’t add to a single day’s traffic for any one of the bloggers in Technorati’s top 100, the higher beings of the blogosphere ecosystem, or the Blogebrity a-list (note which list I’m on)— come together to amplify a story and mobilize people into action on a scale that probably none of us could have done on our own. And while I’m still not convinced that “there is no a-list” (something most often heard from those on that list), I’m beginning to think that when it comes using blogging to spread information and achieve results, the a-list may not be as important as many are inclined to think.
This most recent time, the pattern emerged again last Monday when I sat down to read my email and learned about the LIFEbeat concert featuring artists known for violently anti-gay lyrics. While still recovering from an AIDS organization promoting those artists, I got an email from Keith asking several black gay bloggers to join in doing something about it, and I did. Less than 48 hours later, LIFEbeat cancelled the concert and then apologized for the whole debacle. Though I was reeling from the speed at which everything had happened, I had a sense of deja vu and realized I’d experienced much the same thing a few times before.
The most obvious is Zach’s story and what happened when I blogged that. It wasn’t even a coordinated effort. I came across Zach’s story and blogged it late on a Friday night. Because it was still on my mind Saturday morning I crossposted it to a few more places and emailed links to more heavily trafficked blogs. While I was doing all of that, a few other bloggers — one who knew Zach personally, some in Tennessee where Zach lived, and others who were just moved by the story — were blogging about it as well. Eventually, through various links we found each other and started reading and linking to each other for updates.
When we do, we get results that might not have been achievable before, because you don’t have to have access to a major media outlet anymore to have a voice that reaches beyond your living room. I’ve always been a writer, but before blogging, the likelihood of my getting a byline in any publication was pretty slim. In 2003, I had little journalism experience, and if I’d started at a newspaper or magazine then it would probably have been as an administrative assistant, which would have yielded maybe one or two writing opportunities every once in a long while.
If I was lucky, I might be writing for publication more regularly by now. But it much more likely that I wouldn’t be writing anything anywhere that anyone could read it.
Except for the occasional “Letter to the Editor,” that may or may not end up getting published.
There are simply too many like me for “The Daily Me” to ever go away.