Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Newspapers: another one bites the dust...

I seem to know just how to pick 'em. I'm talking about careers. As a high school student well before the lure associated with Woodward and Bernstein, I was particularly drawn to journalism. I didn't need the glory of a byline or an above-the-fold story. No, I took my inspiration from the love of writing in an incisive and informative style that would entertain and, perhaps, bring a smile to the face or a tear to the eye. I will admit that an occasional byline would be nice, though. I thought the newspaper was a formidable force and that it would always be an institution for the ages. Like Spider-Man or other classic superheroes, being a member of the fourth estate carried with it great responsibility in response to that great power of working to keep society informed. Yet, small as we were, reporters, columnists and journalists-at-large could challenge the most powerful figures and most daunting institutions in a way that was to be respected. The public's right to know took priority over anything else except, perhaps, for protecting one's sources. That might occasionally land someone in jail due to overzealous prosecution, but it was a necessary evil were the public to be served and sources to be kept safe. Anyone who saw "The Front Page," "His Girl Friday" or "All the President's Men," know roughly how a giant newspaper works. The editor screams at the reporter that he wants his big story or the reporter is fired. The pressure to produce the story by day's end is intense, but it's all about selling papers. And what is the engine behind determining the size of a newspaper? Why advertising, of course. Advertising is the engine that keeps the printed word on a page, but it has been shrinking as fewer and fewer readers opt to get their news from traditional newsprint outlets and instead opt for newer sources from the Internet and over cutting edge hand-held wonders like Blackberry devices. Newspapers are fighting for their lives as Craig's List and others have gobbled up classified advertising, once considered the bastion of the local newspaper. The downturn in the economy has also taken its toll. With revenue streams turning to tiny rivulets, cost-cutting measures involved offering early retirement packages or whole scale firings. Those who managed to keep their jobs were oftentimes doing more (like blogging) in an attempt to beef up a web presence for the newspapers' own Internet sites. A few weeks ago it was the Rocky Mountain News, which shuttered its doors after almost 150 years of continuous operation. The latest victim in this ongoing tragedy is the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which will publish its last newsprint version on Tuesday. After that, what staff remains will be strictly writing for the web. The Hearst Corporation made that announcement yesterday in reaction to its inability to sell the 146-year-old newspaper it has operated in a joint operating agreement (JOA) with its cross-town rival The Seattle Times. The idea of a JOA, similar to the one the Rocky Mountain News enjoyed with the Denver Post, is to keep competing newspapers viable in the marketplace and to share resources. The idea of getting a "scoop" over a competitor has diminished as necessities and practicalities of staying financially afloat have dictated how newspapers work in a market with a competitor. It is not unlike having a "pool" for reporters. Sharing resources allows two papers the greatest probability that each will survive as opposed to one titan slaying another. Most agree that a newspaper monopoly is not necessarily in the public interest. The announcement by Hearst yesterday means Seattle will become a one-paper town, although, technically, the P.I.'s product will shift to an all-digital format. It seems to me that it is only a matter of time before this model will be found across the nation and poor reporters and columnists will be forced to become headline writers and bloggers. Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you. It seems writing for a newspaper today could be compared to being a blacksmith. It's a necessary trade enjoyed by a very few and certainly not of much importance to all those people out there driving their cars.

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