Thursday, March 19, 2009

Newspapers failing: Was it something I did?

Camp Connell, CA -- I fail to see how anyone other than a convicted Luddite can take joy from the failure of newspapers across America.
I certainly don't.
And it appears that more newspapers will certainly close their doors in the next few months.
Democracy (with a small "d") will suffer if more follow the Seattle Post-Intelligencer down the tubes. The voices you hear cheering on the sidelines are generally uninformed about how a democracy works, unkind, or just plain stupid.
I don't think the decline is my fault even though I spent more than four decades working for seven different newspapers and one wire service in four states. Some people think I retired just in time, but they don't understand how much of my life savings was (past tense) invested in newspaper companies.
I know about news available on the Internet. That's how I get most of my news these days, and it is unsatisfactory. Most Internet news sites are variations on the Entertainment Network: 15 seconds of flash about something interesting -- for one moment -- and of no particular significance. Octomom comes to mind.
Even the better web sites established by good newspapers tend to be less than the whole, a mere glimpse into the information that should be there. Very few news web sites offer anything close to what even a small daily normally offered to its readers.
Daily newspapers are struggling to maintain a positive outlook, but it gets harder every day in face of the economy and a public that's not terribly interested.
Everyone associated with the news industry is trying to figure out who to blame, and what to do next.
The Internet has changed society, but it should not be blamed for the decline of newspapers.
Here's my personal list of causes, effects and blame:
-- Greed. Bigger and bigger retail businesses controlled more and more advertising dollars and insisted on more and more control of news content. They went bankrupt when the economy dumped leaving newspaper companies holding an empty bag. I know all about the influence of the Internet, but the reality is that most American newspapers took a major financial bath from the series of bankruptcies that have dotted the retail landscape this past year. Retail advertising was at least 80% of a daily newspaper's income stream. Craigslist dented another 10 per cent.
-- Bad judgment. Newspapers rushed to jump into the Internet news business, which was a good idea, but decided to give away the content they owned, which was the worst idea since the electorate chose George W. Bush. We made our choices, and now we live with the results. No wonder young urbanites who are willing to pay $4 for a latte on the way to work turn up their noses when newspapers went up to a quarter.
-- More greed. Newspaper corporations changed from fiscally conservative to high-flying borrowers and decided that they had to grow bigger and bigger to survive. Banks were happy to loan big bucks (sound familiar?) because everybody knew the economy would boom forever. A critical mistake was made by a lot of normally level-headed people. If it were not for the mountain of debt burying most large news companies, the industry would be making adjustments and waiting for better days. Most daily newspapers still make more money than they spend, which is called "a profit," but can't pay off massive debts they would never have considered taking on a decade ago.
-- More bad judgment. America's culture changed and newspaper executives did not notice, or did not know how to react. The public became more and more fragmented and less and less willing to support the American idea of diversity of voices the Constitution protects. Blame this on a declining education system, or whatever, but the reality is most Americans today are pretty intolerant of opinions they don't agree with, conservative or liberal, and gravitate toward louder more pointed voices they agree with and are not forced to think about. Rush and Rachel are entertaining, but not always helpful. Yes, I am saying we are dumber than we used to be. The Internet is ideal these days because you can always find someone, no matter how nuts, who agrees with your deeply held but really stupid opinions. (Don't take it personally. I count myself among those who read the Internet this way.)
-- And still more greed. For the past 25 years American newspapers, like politics, became more and more "business friendly." Car dealers complained that reviews of automobiles were "anti-business," and threatened to withhold advertising. Real Estate and development interests claimed the newsroom was "anti-growth" and "unfriendly," and publishers all over the country came up with a brilliant idea. Presto Chango, publishers moved Auto and Real Estate Sections to the advertising departments where nary a critical word was ever printed. Readers knew they were being had and quit reading what that saw as pablum and became more suspicious of the rest of the paper. Meanwhile union leaders made unreasonable demands and preached an anti-business litany that backfired, that triggered mindless union-busting by management, and everyone was hurt except the lawyers who were paid by the hour.
There are numerous other contributing factors, but this list is long enough to think about for a while.
Then, maybe, we can come up with some solutions.

Looking back at the headline at the top of this blog I am forced to answer the question: Yes, I am partly to blame but it was mostly things I did not do, rather than what I did.
I did not yell loud enough, resist loud enough, nag enough and refuse to compromise enough. It might not have changed things, but if enough American editors had taken hold of the high ground instead of enjoying their perquisites and worrying about their bonuses, we might all be better off.
I was pretty irritating as an editor, but not nearly irritating enough. Mea culpa.


Michael J. Fitzgerald said...

Bravo! Greed, greed, greed, indeed. And the unwillingness to change, too.

Play Fair said...

What you wrote is so sad, but true.

I still subscribe to the Florida Today and enjoy it so much.