Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Another One Bites the Dust

Another day and another report of another newspaper biting the dust. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is the latest fatality. In intensive care are several others, notably The San Francisco Chronicle. The New York Times has had to seek a bailout from a Mexican billionaire. The Miami Herald and many, many others are hemorrhaging staff in an effort to stay afloat. Here in the UK are similar stories. Will the layoffs work? Probably only for the short term.

I take a personal interest in the demise and ill health of newspapers since that used to be my chosen profession. I started my career during an economic downturn and felt fortunate to get any job at all. I ended my newspaper career during another economic downturn. Though I joined the newspaper world at the dawn of the computer age, I wouldn't say I ever worked during the heyday of newspapers. Always there seemed to be a struggle to balance the books, to sell enough ads to support the mighty costs of running a newspaper.

Advertising was, and is, the mainstay of a newspaper's economic health. Take it away and you see an awful lot of red. But advertising revenues during my time were shrinking, slowly at first, then in one great big rush. The big advertisers used to be banks (which may be dying daily now but have suffered ill health for some time), department stores (ditto), and car manufacturers and dealerships (same as the others). That was for the big ads. The little ads, the classifieds, could always be counted on to prop up the first group if need be. Not any more thanks to eBay, Craigslist and other internet sites.

People moan about the cost of a newspaper. Circulation revenues actually aren't that great. Think about all that you get for the cost of one newspaper -- an awful lot. People say they don't have time to read a newspaper anymore. Then turn off your TV. People say they don't agree with what is written in a newspaper. What? Not a single, solitary word?

My friends and former colleagues in the newspaper business naturally are anxious about their jobs, if they still have one. On the editorial side, one goes into newspapers almost because it's a calling. You don't get paid a lot. The percs are almost non-existent. On the advertising side, there's always (or used to be) a competition, a prize, a party for selling the most ads. Not for the editors and reporters. The prize is seeing your product in print.

Newspapers record the major events of a person's life -- birth, death, engagement, wedding. Think of the major events in the last century, and what picture comes to mind? The headlines in the newspaper. Pearl Harbor. VE Day, VJ Day. Harry Truman winning the election and holding up a newspaper that called it a day a bit too early. Kennedy being assassinated. 9/11/2001. Obama winning the election.

Now, take away newspapers. What records the importance of these days? What do you save to show your grandchildren?

Newspapers are partially to blame for their death. They haven't managed for change. But I don't put much blame on their shoulders. Despite or maybe because of all this change, it's a lazy world. And it's going to be a much less-informed world too without newspapers.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you. It is a sad decline for the newspaper industry. There are two daily papers for the state I live in. One has gone under, the other one is not far behind.

I prefer to get my news from a newspaper. It's not necessarily that I like the quality of the facts, but it is the ritual of taking time to read a newspaper, consider the written word and appreciate the factual research of the author. Apart from the national/international news, it is the reporting and essayship (if thats a word!) of community events and personalities that I appreciate which you will never see on CNN.

The written word is better than the spoken word and for this reason I prefer newspapers to the opinionated soundbites of CNN, Fox etc.

I am in my 40s and suspect I am in what is probably the last generation to read newspapers. It's unfair to generalise, but I suspect the majority of the younger generations find reading tedious and prefer the quick soundbites offered by the internet and TV channels.

I have been away from the UK for some time now. I see the decline of the US newspapers. Is it the same in the UK and the rest of Europe? Have any of the big nationals gone under? Please tell me the Daily Sport has gone. Please.

DogLover said...

I agree with Dave (though/because I am almost twice his age).

I read the paper from cover to cover and wouldn't be without it. But a good friend of mine never buys one; she comes here once a week and devours everything in it! I don't know what she does for news during the rest of the week because she doesn't have TV on the ground that it wastes her time!

The Daily Sport, Dave? Sadly yes, there's evidently still a demand for it.

Margaret said...

I don't have a lot of regard for what I see in US newspapers - I get the Dallas paper once a week, and just for the puzzles, comics (cartoons) and the weekly TV guide. I throw the other 10 pounds of paper out!

We just have to redefine what we think of as the written word (and how adequately it will be spelled!). Although much of the news in every medium is now mere fluff, they all depend on each other so much that anything of value is immediately accessible through the internet.

I think the image of the newspaper as a source of information is just that - an image, mainly created by Hollywood. I remember hearing the news that JFK had been shot - my father heard it on the radio in England, and came to tell the rest of the family. With 9/11, it was all over the radio and TV as it was happening, and the in depth coverage was on the internet, not in the papers.

And once something is on the internet, it's there forever! If you don't believe that, try getting rid of an unfortunate photo!!!

Sorry to see them go, but I think newspapers are today's dodos. The heyday was really over in the 1940s - everything since then has been a downward spiral. Even investigative journalism really doesn't happen in the print media any more. Weekly and monthly magazines will pick up the pieces that are still needed.

laurie said...

ouch. margaret's comments hurt.

i've worked in newsrooms for the last 30 years. i see some fluff, but i also see people working their butts off trying to get information in an increasingly secretive time (just try getting something through FOIA and seeing how long it takes), when all official comment is now filtered through PR flaks who don't have first-hand information and are put in place mainly to stall, not to provide information...

it's getting tougher and tougher. and with revenue drying up and people going to craig's list for their classified ads instead of the newspaper, and to for their car ads, and to realty sites online for their housing ads, we have less and less money and have to cut back on staff, which means we have fewer people and a smaller travel budget....

fluff? we try not to. but we also try to provide something for everyone.

oh i'm fighting a losing battle.

Expat mum said...

I would buy a newspaper more often if they weren't full of so much crap. The Chicago Tribune at the weekend is about a foot thick, but by the time I cull the rubbish, there's about 6 pages to read. I read 4 or 5 newspapers a day online (not the entire thing) and am probably more informed now that I was 5 years ago. My eyeballs are quite dry tho'.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

Dave: Don't you worry. The Daily Sport is alive and well, but the Manchester Evening News is not. In the UK, the local papers are the ones in danger. At the moment. I think you're right about our generation being the last great readers of newspapers. What will we fill our time with when/if we ever retire?

Doglover: My dad and his wife quit subscribing to their local newspaper on the grounds that it cost too much and they never read it anyway. Yet when we visited and bought papers, they read them every day. Go figure.

Margaret: Well, we all have opinions, and yours is as valid as any one's. Sadly, I don't think you're in the minority anymore. Just one question: how old are you? Not old enough to remember Kennedy's assassination obviously. But speaking of investigative journalism, Watergate was in the 70s. You would never have seen that on TV or even read it on the internet.

laurie: I thought of you the whole time I was writing this.

Margaret said...

Sorry - didn't mean to hurt anyone's feelings. And I was talking primarily about the US newspapers. But in Dallas, the paper is just like Expat mum said.

And I was 12 years old when JFK was shot. I was doing my homework at the kitchen table in Surrey when my dad came in and said "Some idiot's taken a pot shot at President Kennedy - killed him!" That was how we heard - on the radio.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

Expatmum and Margaret: Yes, U.S. newspapers have allowed flyers and ads to overtake content. They have had to. The ads determine the layout of a newspaper. A full page of news with no ads is very expensive to produce so doesn't happen much anymore.

Margaret: Newspapers ceded the immediacy ground to radio a long, long time ago. That is not what you buy a newspaper for. You buy it for a more in-depth (hopefully) look at issues that you don't get in a 10-second snippet on radio or a 20-second snippet on TV.

family affairs said...

It would be tragic not to have newspapers and the written word available - our children will suffer from as you say the laziness of our existence these days and the desire for immediate information. Still. It might be good news for bloggers! Lx

Rob-bear said...

As someone whose career was in radio initially (and in print only after that), I don't have the same love affair with papers as others in this group.

One of the major problems with newspapers is editors. Editors who get to be editors because they align themselves with the publisher's philosophy, world-view, opinions, etc. That makes it difficult for good stores and writing to get a place. (I hear that routinely from other journalists; I experience it only occasionally in my writing.) The worst experience I ever recall was reading another report on an event I was covering. I had to read the story four times before I realized I had written about the same event. But the other story was entirely in tune with the publisher's philosophy. Also, I've seen reporters apologize to sources for the way material was mishandled by editors.

So I make a point of getting my information from a variety of sources. The easiest way to do that is on-line.

lady macleod said...

Ian (Or So I Thought) wrote a column about this as well. having recently been not -quite-forcibly transplanted to Houston, Texas usa ( a sizable city) I was shocked to be informed "there is no opposing paper, it closed."

I feel very strongly that we can not have a free society without a free press. Yes, they can annoy, yes they are biased (as are we all, and that's why we need the two).

I will admit part of my personal regret is that I for one miss the tactile experience of the rattle of the paper as you turn it and the annoyance that the New York Times still uses such cheap ink it comes off onto my fingers. When in the usa I used to have the London Times sent over, but now I too use the online issue.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

family affairs: But newspapers aren't what they used to be, as Margaret and expatmum rightly point out.

Rob-bear: I don't need to tell you to be careful about your on-line sources. You're a professional and know what you're doing. There is just so much mis-information out there. Nice to know the newspaper world is the same as ever, with reporters blaming editors for messing up their stories. It happens. It also happens that editors save reporters' asses. It's a worst friend/best enemy relationship.

Lady M: You've given me an idea for my next blog -- the demise of the two-newspaper city.

Flowerpot said...

And I gather the Daily Mail are making thousands redundant from their advertising department. Doesnt look good does it?