The death of newspapers

You may have heard that the Star Tribune declared bankruptcy yesterday. There has been speculation for some time now, growing stronger, that the Twin Cities won’t be a two-newspaper metro area for long.

That’s just a small part of a much bigger story of bankruptcy and buyouts, layoffs and scaled back publication days. It happened in Chicago before Minneapolis. Fierce debate was stirred up recently when it was suggested the New York Times – the New York Times – may be in similar straits.

For some people, that’s cause for rejoicing: the biased old mainstream media getting its comeuppance courtesy of talk radio, blogs and alternative media. No more monopoly for you.

Let’s stipulate my biases: I am a newspaper guy. I can remember reading the newspaper as a young child. My first job was delivering newspapers. I love the feel of them, the look of them, the smell of them. I love the sense of a community in them. I love the letters to the editor, and the cartoons, and the puzzles, the obits, the sports page, the whole thing. For most of my working life I have supported my family by working at them, and I still do, although now it’s a niche newspaper.

I’m a newspaper partisan.

I’m also a critical fan. Newspapers have lots and lots of faults. They do have biases, especially when it comes to social issues and matters of religion, things I happen to care very deeply about. There is a lot I don’t like about newspapers, and I know many people who share the same concerns I do.

In fact, I’m kind of writing this for them.

Here’s the thing: When the local daily newspaper dies, there is nothing at all waiting to take its place. Nothing. And that should concern everybody.

Many people operate under the delusion that their favorite blogs or their favorite radio shows or even their favorite journal will replace them. After all, that’s where they get most of their news now.

But most of that content comes from commenting on, or perhaps augmenting, original reporting done by somebody else, and chances are that somebody else was working for a newspaper.

Think broadcast media will pick up the slack? Not a chance.

I haven’t crunched any numbers here, but I would just hazard a guess and say that even in its weakened state, the daily newspaper in my community has more working journalists in its newsroom than the rest of the news organizations in town combined.

And I would also hazard a guess that even with the shrunken news hole, the local daily here has more content in a given day, in terms of both depth and breadth, than any other local news outlet.

If you want somebody dedicated to cover local government bodies, local business, local schools, local politics, if you want somebody local in the state capitol, then all those somebodies are not going to be from the local TV station but from the local newspaper. If you want a journalistic organization with the resources to dedicate somebody to investigative journalism – to digging after stories that are hard to get and important to get, rather than running just press releases or new conference quotes – that somebody is not going to be at the local radio station, that somebody is going to be at the local newspaper.

If you want depth on an important news story, you will not find it in the 90 seconds it gets on TV. You will find it in the newspaper, on the jump page.

Think the Internet is going to save us? After all, the overhead is a lot lower there. No presses, no trucks, no paperboys, no paper, no ink. One would think that would make the budget a lot easier to meet. And there’s no limit on the news hole. As much text, video and audio as you can stand.

Except nobody has found a way to break even doing the kind of journalism good newspapers do on the Internet. People expect to get their online news free. If there were a successful business model, lots of newspaper owners would be flocking to it this second, believe me.

And people don’t read on the Internet, they skim. (One might well ask why I have written more than 700 words here.)

I don’t have any magic bullet. Neither does anybody else.

But this matters, and people should care about it. If the Death of Newspapers makes you smile or shrug your shoulders, you haven’t thought it through enough.

The cure for poor newspapers is fixing newspapers, not killing them.

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