Thursday, January 29, 2009

Is a One-Newspaper Town a One-Horse Town?

©2009 by LeeZard

It’s no secret; the days of the daily newspaper are numbered. Look around; cities across the country are faced with losing a major daily paper. It’s happening here in Seattle as well as in Denver, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis and Baltimore. In city after city, newsrooms are going dark. Even the sainted New York Times is having trouble paying down its huge debt.

Metropolitan areas that once enjoyed a plethora of hard-copy news coverage and editorial opinion are finding themselves left with just one voice – and, even that voice could be in jeopardy. It’s a sad state of affairs for an industry that is more than 300-years old.

According to newspaper-industry.org:
“The first daily newspaper was The Daily Courant in London, 1702. France's first daily newspaper appears in 1777, Journal de Paris, while the first United States daily was the Pennsylvania Packet in 1784.”

There was a time when great cities bristled with newsprint. By the end of the 19th Century there were more than 11,000 newspapers in this country. According to Professor Roger Simpson at the University of Washington School of Communications, there are about 1,400 today.

At one time New York City had 20-papers. The Big Apple’s first daily was The Gazette, initially published in 1795. The more famous New York dailies included The Sun, The Telegram and The World (which melted into the World Telegram & Sun), The Times, The Herald and The Tribune, which merged into The Herald Tribune. New York publishers included names like Pulitzer, Noah Webster, Ochs (New York Times), Horace Greely (“Go West Young Man”) and Hearst. The names of famous journalists are way too numerous to list here. Today, New Yorkers get The Times and two tabloids, The Daily News and The Mirror.

In Seattle, the fight is raging over the impending death of the 146-year old Post-Intelligencer. After a 26-year shotgun marriage (read that Joint Operating Agreement, or JOA) to the rival Seattle Times, the Hearst Corporation recently announced it was putting the P-I up for sale. If the paper doesn’t sell – and, frankly, who wants to buy a dying paper in a dying industry – Hearst says the paper will go dark 60-days from the announcement. The company did leave open the possibility of retaining an on-line version of the paper but with a very limited and reduced staff.

Things in Seattle’s newspaper world have been shaky for a while. There was a protracted legal battle when the Times tried to get out of the JOA claiming the agreement – separate newsrooms with the Times handling the business, printing and distribution of both papers – could force the Times to close down. The effort failed. So, Hearst’s announcement was no surprise but, this time, it has a “this time we mean it” ring to it. The Newspaper Guild and the company have already negotiated severance packages for the paper’s 170 employees.

There are community efforts to save the P-I. There is the grassroots “Committee For a two Newspaper Town.” One of Seattle’s congressmen recently penned a passionate guest column on the subject that ran in the P-I and a Seattle City Council committee this week staged a public panel discussion.

Frankly, LeeZard isn’t so sure it is worth the effort or the investment to keep publishing either the Times or the P-I over the long haul. As stated at the top of this treatise, the industry is dying.

The business model of circulation+ad revenue=profit is long gone. Core readership for newspapers runs 55 years old and up and, even before the current recession, competing media (new and old) were eating deeply into newspaper ad revenues. Additionally, what usually kept readers coming back to their favorite newspapers was the quality of the content. As papers struggled to cut costs to stay profitable, they ultimately cut newsroom staff. That lowered the quality of the content and created a vicious downward spiral in circulation and, ultimately, ad revenue.

So, as one panelist at the city council’s discussion this week so aptly put it, “This is more about saving journalism than saving newspapers. What we are talking about here is the delivery mode” Bingo! A free press is one of the things that make our great democracy great. The times they are a’changin’, though, and Seattle (along with every other metropolitan area in the country) must come to grips with it.

Yes, I’d like to see both newspapers in Seattle continue – for now. I’m in that 55+ demographic and I still love my coffee and morning paper, especially on Sunday with a good cigar. For that to happen, though, it’s going to take some creative thinking. Seattle and other cities are already looking at options such as employee ownership, a non-profit structure, a co-op or the creation of an independent, public authority. But, they must also be looking into the not-too-distant future; like it or not, New Media will rule the day.

It’s already happening. Seattle has Crosscut.com, started by the man who founded the successful Seattle Weekly more than 30-years ago. Online news publishing also allows for micro-coverage that large daily papers usually ignore. Again, techno-savvy Seattle is on the leading edge with the neighborhood-focused “West Seattle Blog” founded by a former TV journalist (LeeZard usually gags when he uses those two terms – TV & journalist – in the same sentence).

One of the city councilmen at this week’s panel discussion posed the question, “Isn’t on-line journalism prone to irresponsibility because of the plethora of non-professionals out there?”

It is a reasonable question but the answer is even more reasonable. There are plenty of irresponsible “journalists” no matter where you go. The standards and ethics imposed at newspapers are easily transferable to digital journalism when professional journalists are in charge – just like in print journalism.

As the old saying goes, “The future is now.”