Thursday, March 12, 2009

Death Of The Newspaper

As a news consumer, the imminent death of a big city newspaper makes me sad. There has always been something comforting to me about sitting down to breakfast and reading the morning paper, wherever I am. When I travel, to big cities or small towns, I'll pick up the local daily to see what's going on. It's more than being a news junkie -- there's satisfaction in the tactile sensation of holding that assemblage of information in my hands while scanning for items that catch the eye.

A good newspaper can surprise you more often with little tidbits or big stories, well told, and their news operations usually dwarf everyone else in town, even with recent reductions brought on by the economic downturn. They have the people power to cover stories ignored by local TV (because there's no compelling visual), and offer an unmatched breadth of coverage, from the big stories to business news to community events to local squabbles and on and on. The paper is often the only check on authority and abuse of power locally, too.

Broadcast outlets rely on the newspaper to steer them towards the stories they'll cover that day, even though the fact that it's in print means it's at least a day old already. Every radio host in America, regardless of format, checks the paper (or its website) to see what's worth talking about. A good newspaper story can drive talk radio discussion from morning till night, and then some. Local morning TV shows that don't want to rehash their own late newscast from last night will instead re-use content from that day's paper, almost always without credit. Rarely does another media outlet get an entire town buzzing like that.

That doesn't mean I don't use the internet to gather information. I do. As a freelance host for stations around the country, I rely on the online offerings from big newspapers. If I'm going to be on WHAS/Louisville, I can find out what's going on in town by sifting through the stories on Courier-Journal.com. For WLS/Chicago, I'll read the Tribune and Sun-Times sites, plus those of some suburban papers. Both of these radio stations have their own web presence and news content, but none as dense as the big daily newspapers.

Contrary to popular belief, more people are reading newspapers than ever before -- they're just doing it online. Unfortunately, publishers have not been able to turn that vast virtual readership into advertising revenue sufficient to cover the expenses of such a large operation. Some of them are considering scaling back to online-only versions, but they will be mere shadows of the vast news-gatherers of the past and present.

The mistake was offering all that content for free in the first place. That's an ongoing problem in the internet age, when online users have come to expect so much for so little. Some newspaper critics contend that the internet offers access to plenty of other news, and that the blogosphere and "citizen journalists" will fill the abyss left by the death of a newspaper. But they don't understand how much online content relies on newspapers.

When polls show that Americans (particularly those under 30) rely on the internet for news, they fail to list the outlets that provide that information. Even online news aggregators, like Drudge, rely on print publications for most of their links. The rest of the blogosphere follows, with the vast majority of online news chatter in this country starting with something reported or written for a newspaper.

In Seattle, the Post-Intelligencer has been publishing a daily newspaper since the Civil War. Two months ago, its owner, the Hearst Corporation, gave the paper 60 days to find a buyer or the paper would be shut down. How ironic that a company started by William Randolph Hearst, who used newspapers as his soapbox to influence a generation of readers and bludgeon his political opponents, can't make a go of it in print anymore. Tuesday was day number sixty, and no one's stepped forward with a check to buy the P-I. As of today, the paper is still in print, but it may be gone by next week. That would leave Seattle as a one-paper town, and the rival Seattle Times is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy itself.

That's why I invited Mark Fitzgerald, editor-at-large at Editor & Publisher, the newspaper industry watchdog, to join me on KIRO-FM to discuss the imminent death of the P-I and other big city dailies.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!