Monday, March 16, 2009

More newspaper blood...

Goodbye Post-Intelligencer. Following the demise of Denver's Rocky Mountain News (see previous post), Seattle has now lost the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which is going online-only under much-reduced circumstances.

It could be worse. Denver and Seattle were two-newspaper towns. The Denver Post and the Seattle Times remain, and may be expected to benefit from their competitors' death.

The watch is therefore on for the first one-newspaper city to lose a newspaper. LibraryThing's home town, Portland, Maine, is likely to lose its newspaper, the Portland-Press Herald (good report). But Portland is a small city. Losing the San Francisco Chronicle would be a real disaster.

The economy is one factor, of course. But the underlying shift is technological—the web is killing newspapers.

Should we care? Ultimately, as Clay Shirky writes: "Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism." (Shirky's post should be required reading for publishers and libraries as well.) But, as Shirky realizes, there's no guarantee that new models and new media—which will surely do interesting things—can support what traditional print journalism did. Bloggers can do a lot of good, but traditional journalism tackled the tedious and expensive tasks bloggers won't. Ultimately, it's unimportant whether we get our news online or in print, but it's worth it to have someone who sits through all the city-council meetings and has longstanding sources where it counts.

There's no question that newspapers have failed to adapt, but mostly in the sense that your head fails to adapt when it's hit by a hammer. "New models" or no, newspapers, print and online, are in decline. Amateurs are great, but you need money in the system, and print newspapers were simply much better "money machines" than online is or will ever be. Printing costs bulk large in the imagination, but they don't begin to make up the difference. And the audience won't grow to make it up. The shrink is real. The internet is giving and will give us much, but it's taking this away.

Goodbye Book World. In related news, The Washington Post is ending its Book World section, which will be downsized and folded into the regular Sunday paper.

Newspaper book reviews were going extinct before the recession. They're practically ivory-billed woodpeckers now. Online reviews are largely to blame, and partially make up for the loss. But, again, if something is gained, we can't deny that something is certainly being lost.

Am I wrong? I hope so. Tell me so on Talk.

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9 Comments:

Anonymous urania1 said...

If newspapers are failing, the blame rests largely on editorial decisions. During Bush's presidency, newspapers neglected their duties as watchdogs. More and more writers relied on press releases (hardly unbiased sources) and little was done in the way of investigative journalism. I had to read The Guardian to find out was was happening in my own country. I cannot count the number of times The Guardian featured stories about US events that did not make the news here for months, sometimes years later. Incidentally, The Guardian is doing quite well. Moreover, I was dismayed to see the dumbing down of news. I don't want to read the New York Times' latest take on Britany Spears, Michael Jackson, or the runaway bride. Those topics are not news; they are gossip. I am tired of reading pablum. When newspapers decide to publish articles for grown-ups, I will gladly pay for subscriptions. Until then, no way.

Regarding your comment about newspaper book reviews - for the last decade or so, the reviews for major papers like the New York Times have been worthless. The editors have picked predictable books, have not exposed their readers to non-mainstream literature, and have done a poor job of reviewing books. Moreover, sexism is rappant in the choices editors make. For a many years, I kept track of the number of books that made it to the New York Times notable books of the year. Year after year, books women represented one third of list and books by men represented the other two thirds.

3/17/2009 1:54 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

I don't think the Portland Press Herald is failing and so many other small-city papers are failing because of their inadequate war coverage. Nor is Britney Spears as common a NYT topic than you might think!

3/17/2009 2:55 AM  
Blogger Mary Molinaro said...

I do not believe that editorial policies are the cause of the newspapers' demise. Rather it is economics and a changing information environment. Tim is right about Clay Shirky's post being required reading. Link to the post here Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable

3/17/2009 9:13 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Read the latest State of the News Media report. It's dire, but it's not because we don't read news, or that we don't trust it. It's that the business office doesn't know what to do in a world of Craigslist and online news surfing. Their advertising/circulation revenues no longer exist and they don't know what will replace them. So they fire people, shrink, go online only... but until there's some financial means of paying for newsgathering we will have a crippled fourth estate.

3/17/2009 9:23 AM  
Anonymous FicusFan said...

I think the economic model adopted in the 80s - greed is good, and technology are both responsible.

Profit is no longer good enough, there needs to be massive profit. The road to that goal has been the cutting of services. In newspaper terms that means cutting back on reporting/journalists. The re-use of press reports and shallow blurbs, and the use of gossip as filler.

Newspapers have lost a lot of their base, and they are unable to convince the casual readers to subscribe. They offer little that can't be gained on-line.

They do a poor job at both big far away events, and the smaller ones at local events (the one in my town is an actual joke).

The technology that is killing them is not just that you can get it on-line, its that what comes out in hardcopy is old news by the time it gets to the reader.

Newspapers could have moved to more in-depth coverage, and covering items that weren't endlessly hashed out on the internet, but they didn't. They could have moved to more international coverage, but they didn't.

They allowed the internet to set the terms and raced after it, rather than trying to set their own course and build value on their own terms.

And the book review sections don't usually cover books that most people want to read, so they are irrelevant.

3/17/2009 9:43 AM  
Anonymous urania1 said...

Tim,

Perhaps the Seattle and Portland papers provided adequate war coverage. I have not read these two papers so I cannot say. Regarding the New York Times coverage of Britney Spears, I searched the archives: 170 stories in the last six years, and they weren't music reviews for the most part. Most of the newspapers in my area are owned by media consortiums like Scripps Howard. And yes, the war coverage was horrible. Certain news stories never made it to papers in the south. I do not subscribe to either of my local papers because the news writing and everything else about the papers are laughably bad. I do not believe in wasting perfectly decent trees on worthless newsprint, nor do I cherish any nostalgia for keeping poorly run businesses that produce substandard products. They do not deserve my bail out money. I do support local businesses when these businesses do the job well. I support quite a few.

3/17/2009 10:18 AM  
Blogger Alexander Gieg said...

If you want to get even more depressed on this, start following themediaisdying on Twitter. An incessant torrent of bad news.

Now and then John C. Dvorak also comments on this. See his last Friday column on PC Magazine for a good example: Newspaper Publishers Are Idiots.

As for myself, I don't buy newspaper anymore either. There are a few free ones around here, and those I read, but that's it.

3/17/2009 11:23 AM  
Blogger bowerbird said...

it's funny -- and tremendously instructive --
to see where the money _really_ comes from.

for instance, despite a focus on advances
and the big-money contracts, and albums
and touring, most recording artists make
their income from _the_publishing_rights_,
which traditionally means _sheet_music_...
sheet music? sheet music. gee, who knew?

likewise, newspapers have been supported
-- to a surprisingly large degree -- by ads.
not those big display ads. _classified_ ads.
a few lines might cost you as much as $100,
just for a run of a few days. what a cash cow!

amazingly, though, newspapers didn't defend
this turf in relation to its vital importance, and
they ended by being disintermediated by craig,
and online outlets like ebay and use-car sites.

this inattention to their real source of income
was disastrous, especially when coupled with
their arrogance about their own importance,
not to mention brazen coporate profiteering
that stripped the "beef" and left only skeleton.

the reason this is important is because society
has _never_ "paid the price" for news-gathering.

we shifted the burden to classified ad suckers
-- solely because they had no other option --
and thus got them to subsidize news-gathering.

now that that little trick is unavailable any more,
and we have to bear the full-and-true cost of it,
we'll have to decide if we really want news or not.

the sad part is, the corporations would probably
rather keep us in the dark, so they can exploit us.

-bowerbird

3/17/2009 6:14 PM  
Blogger Georgia Gal said...

Here in Atlanta the single newspaper has been laying off regularly for the past 3 years. Are the days numbered. Copyeditors went in droves the past few week. How much checking will go on.And what will happen to all those former staff members do next.

3/31/2009 6:53 PM  

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