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.