Losing the News

Newspapers are a dying industry. The big boys on Wall Street have already decided it. Newspaper ad revenues have stopped growing. The subscriber base, for most papers, is declining, and, what’s worse, it is aging. Most young people don’t read newspapers, and they never will.

It’s just a matter of time until we have to find something else to spread on the floor when we’re touching up a paint job. And who cares anyway? We live in a media universe with three 24-hour cable news channels, infinite talk radio, and a bazillion blogs. To many people, the idea of actually reading the work of a trained professional is quaint, boring, and vaguely insulting.

That’s the conventional wisdom. And it’s all true, except for the part about the “new media” environment offering adequate newspaper equivalents. No one would deny that newspapers are entering the final chapter of their history. The disagreement is about how long that chapter will be, and what comes next.

Newspaper readership has stopped growing, but newspapers are still very profitable businesses. In March, the Knight Ridder chain of 32 newspapers was sold by its parent company because it wasn’t making enough money. But the chain, which includes The Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Jose Mercury News, The Miami Herald, and the Akron Beacon Journal, is still returning an annual profit of 19 to 20 percent.

Investors motivated solely by the bottom line want to dump newspapers while they still hold some resale value. Under these circumstances, the new owners will continue the process of retaining the papers’ profitable elements (consumer services and suburban spin-offs, for instance) while stripping those more costly ones that don’t pay a return—such as salaries for professional reporters and expenses for controversial investigative projects.

Still, it will be years, and even decades, before newspapers lose their economic viability. If they can find owners that want to keep them afloat, they will continue to turn modest profits. In the Knight Ridder case, the reporters’ union, the Newspaper Guild, has teamed up with a labor-friendly investment firm to try and buy the chain’s biggest and best papers. This could be a promising model for the medium term, if the Guild and its partners can make it work.

For the long term, the question is how to replace the function that big-city dailies have performed in American democracy. Newspapers are still the only institutions that independently monitor the operation of government and (to a lesser extent) corporations. No other institution actually pays professionals to (at least sometimes) fact-check the claims of politicians and public relations hacks. No other institution has the resources and public access to uncover an injustice or an abuse of power and force those revelations onto the public agenda.

Nationally televised news programs still get their daily agenda from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and a few other papers. Local television news still starts with the metro section of the city daily. Talk radio and Web sites pick up the story somewhere further downstream. When newspapers shrivel and slowly die, much of the informational lifeblood will ooze out of the democratic process.

It’s not hard to imagine what the future of journalism in American should look like. The answers are obvious. We (even we humble monthlies) will eventually drop the costly and ecologically unsound practice of paper and ink publication (and fossil fuel distribution). Journalism will be practiced in the multimedia—print, audio, and video—environment of the World Wide Web. But the question is, will it still be practiced in a relatively serious and independent fashion? There the outcome is entirely in doubt.

Of course, if newspapers had not started putting free content on the Web in 1994, they wouldn’t be facing this problem. They would simply be making the transition to an online subscriber base, and advertisers would follow. But now the papers are in the untenable position of asking people to pay for something (news on the Web) that they’ve been getting for free.

If the free market is allowed to work its blind will upon the newspaper business in the next decade, that great mistake of 1994 will be the last one that independent journalists ever got to make.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky. He is the author of Black and Catholic in the Jim Crow South (Paulist Press).

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