Talking Shop: How Will This Story End?

Ross Mackenzie
|
Posted: Mar 19, 2009 12:01 AM
Talking Shop: How Will This Story End?

Self-appointed experts continue to debate whether it's accurate and appropriate to term the wreckage of the U.S. and global economies a depression. You have spent nearly 50 years in newspapers. How do you describe their condition?

Anyone denying they're in a depression is smoking something -- or not paying attention. Across the country famous nameplates are struggling, bankrupt or defunct. Circulation has plummeted, and advertising along with it.

Perhaps the foremost example is the Boston Globe -- owned by The New York Times (itself the recent recipient of a quarter-billion-dollar infusion from a Mexican financier). Circulating in what may be the nation's most literate community and long a prestige newspaper property, the Globe has been on the market for several years with hardly a suitor. To enhance the Globe's allure for potential buyers, The Times reportedly is throwing into any prospective deal its 18-percent interest in the Boston Red Sox.

Sort of like Cracker Jack -- you buy the product, in this case a newspaper, and you get a toy along with it. Amazing. Why has this depression happened with such suddenness?

It's not sudden at all. Since peaking in the late '60s and early '70s, combined daily circulation has declined both as a hard number and -- more sharply -- as a percentage of the nation's growing population. Advertising rates are based on circulation, so advertising returns have accompanied circulation down. To borrow a sociological term from the compulsory-busing days, in the past several years circulation and advertising reached the tipping point, and what had been a gradual decline became a plunge.

Why?

A perfect storm of forces -- some widely remarked, some less so.

Frequently noted are television, of course, and the Internet. The shift away from blue-collar agricultural and manufacturing labor that helped kill off large afternoon dailies. Women moving heavily into the workforce. (Datum: Newspapers tried for years to target 18- to 35-year-old women to ramp up circulation, never minding that this is one of the culture's busiest demographics -- with minimal time for newspapers.)

And the factors less often discussed?

The collapse of reading as the preferred way to acquire information -- this is why just about all print media, including magazines and books, are suffering horribly. The corresponding shift from the printed word to video. Unions, which have done their best along the way to ravage the newspaper industry. Government (yes, the dead hand of government in this, too), especially the FCC, which has throttled moves toward the convergence of television and newspapers in many communities.

Meism and the rising primacy of self -- self-interest, self-importance. The pace of lives -- the actuality or the perception (which leads to the same result) that people are busier, and so lack the time to read.

And?

And let's not overlook the element of ideology. Newspaper editors and reporters always have been overwhelmingly left-wing -- contrary to the abiding conservatism and centrism of their readerships.

With the advent of viable niche alternatives to general circulation newspapers, angry and exasperated newspaper readers who had not yet tuned out and turned off to the liberal bias infusing the news columns (and overt opinion in the news columns under the header "analysis") fled to talk radio, cable, blogs and Tweets. With this insistent leftism, at least, newspapers have aided in their own difficulties -- just as the television networks, with their similar leftism, have aided in theirs.

But isn't the Internet really the fundamental reason for the depression in the newspaper industry?

Certainly it's an important one -- maybe the straw that finally collapsed the camel. Whoever would have thought things called blogs would help deliver the coup de grace to newspapers?

Just as newspapers, after endless anguished discussion, never could figure out how to stanch the circulation hemorrhage, so they never could determine how to make significant -- or even adequate -- money on the Internet. In almost all cases they are giving their content away, with the implicit yet inescapable message that content lacking sufficient value for newspapers to price it is worthless to readers as well.

This is true even of newspapers owning the local information franchise. Simply not enough people seem to care about local news and opinion to make many local news enterprises viable. It's a huge and compelling sadness. As the citizenry becomes less informed and consequently less involved, civic virtue diminishes -- and the community along with it.

There must be an answer.

One has to hope so. Despite dismal trajectories, some newspapers are doing a lot of things right. Yet with the landscape littered with the carcasses of newspapers vibrant seemingly just yesterday, it's a question how many can hang on -- and for how long.

Within the industry, there used to be an adamant rule that reporters keep themselves out of their stories. Now newspapers contain ever more instances of the first-person singular -- and newspapers themselves, in contravention of another newspaper no-no, are becoming a very big story indeed. And no one, including those paying the closest attention, can say how or when this story, this depression, will end.