At the Death of a Newspaper

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I sense little grief from libertarians at the possible extinction of newspapers. It’s the market – and anyway, except for the Orange County Register, newspapers have not been notably libertarian. A thought arises: “Then to hell with newspapers.”

I’m a newspaperman, and I don’t feel that way. The daily paper where I worked for 16 years, Hearst’s Seattle Post- Intelligencer, has stopped printing. It was not a great paper; it didn’t have enough people, and only some of them were really good at what they did. I knew many of them. Now, apart from a handful still at the P-I’s web page, they are gone, and the city is the poorer for it.

Since 1983 the Post-Intelligencer had shared printing plants, delivery trucks, advertising, and revenues with the larger Seattle Times and split the pot under a “joint operating agreement.” In the ’80s this had been a way to save the P-I and make money for both owners. It changed after 2000, when the Times switched from afternoon delivery to mornings in order to avoid daytime traffic congestion. The result of the two papers’ sharing the same time slot, and of all the other things going on, was a slide in P-I daily circulation from 195,000 to 114,000. Revenue sharing spread the pain to both of them, and in the past year it has threatened to sink them both.

Struggling to stay alive, the Seattle Times had two rounds of buyouts and layoffs in 2008. Until January 2009 there had been no cutbacks at the P-I. In January a Hearst executive flew out from New York and announced that the paper had lost $14 million in 2008 (which works out to $80,000 per employee) and that unless a buyer stepped forward, the paper would stop printing in March. On March 18 the P-I’s red coin boxes stood empty.

Of the five publications I’ve worked for in my career, three have stopped printing, one is for sale, and the fifth, where I work now, has shrunk its staff in an effort to survive.

The major cause of all this is not the bĂȘte noire of libertarian and conservative critics, liberal bias. That malady does exist. But what is one to say when Bill Anderson claims (at LewRockwell.com) that “there is no entity in this country that is more statist than the typical newspaper,” or when Walter Block proclaims that the typical newspaper business page says “that taxes and welfare payments must always and ever be increased.” I’ve worked on newspapers for 30 years – and I had to be a hell of a lot more careful with what I said than these guys are.

Steven Greenhut of the Orange County Register is more accurate when he says the typical chain newspaper is imbued with a “bland left-of-centerism” – with the emphasis on “bland.” The Seattle P-I was like that. Its editorial columns were left-liberal but not stridently so, and left-liberal assumptions might be found in some of its feature stories and columns. But the P-I’s core market, the city of Seattle, is at least as lefty as it was; the city voted more than 800/0 for Barack Obama and elects the leftwing Jim McDermott to Congress. The P-I’s reputation as a liberal paper did hurt it with part of its market, but that was the smaller part.

There are stronger reasons than bias for the decline of newspapers. One is the decline of reading; video has lowered Americans’ attention spans. Another is the rise of a new kind of reading, on screens. In the 1990s newspaper management decided to provide content on the internet for free. The salaries of reporters and editors were already covered by the newspaper’s advertisers. The internet paper required no pressmen or truck drivers, and though there was some fixed cost, the incremental cost of a new reader was nearly zero. “Free” fit the internet ethos, and it was good marketing.

But that was a fateful decision. Newspapers’ internet sites have inexorably gained readers, while their dead-tree product has lost them. Yet the dead-tree product had paid for the reporters and editors. Now the printed newspaper has weakened, and it can carry fewer employees. News executives thought that by and by the internet would carry the weight, but it hasn’t. Google has taken· the great share of internet advertising, because it tailors ads to match search requests, and newspapers can’t do that. Google brings users to news- paper sites, but (from the newspapers’ viewpoint), it collects too much of the ad revenue.

 

An even more important result of the internet has been the newspapers’ loss of classified ads. The metro daily I work for used to have pages and pages of ads for jobs, houses, cars, and garage-sale goods. We charged a steep price for those ads, and they accounted for 40% of our ad revenue. In today’s paper, as I write, the classifieds have shrunk to one page, plus four columns of public notices. The classifieds have shrunk to the same space as the paid death notices.

Much of the classified business has gone to craigslist. I met the famous Craig at a dinner once. His business card did not identify him as a corporate CEO but simply as “Craig

Craigslist is killing the newspapers by offer- ing a classified-ad service that works better than theirs and costs most of its customers nothing. Better product, price of zero; what can the newspapers do?

 

Newmark, customer service rep. & founder.” He is a short, soft-spoken man who writes his company name and job title in lowercase letters. He denied to me in a tone of innocence that he is the carnivore eating my industry’s lunch, but he was trying to be nice. He’s killing us by offering a classified-ad service that works better than ours and that costs most of his customers nothing.

Better product, price of zero: what are you to do?
Maybe you do something else.

Maybe you go out of business. The printed Seattle P-I folded in March. Denver’s number two paper, the Rocky Mountain News, closed on February 27. In Michigan, the Ann Arbor News said that it will go internet-only in July. Time printed a list of the other U.s. newspapers most likely to implode, and the list’s major failing was that it left out too many names.

Every year newspapers shrink – in the width of pages, the number of pages, and what’s in them. The sports section stops covering high-school games. The business section drops the stock tables and second-tier public companies. Book reviews are discontinued. The rock ‘n’ roll critic retires. The consumer-complaint columnist dies and is not replaced. The political cartoonist is laid off. The letters editor goes on medical leave. The travel editor takes a buyout.

This is the world I live in.
Well, so what?

Think of what a good newspaper is: a group of people paid to write about the world around them. Government especially. A good paper will have at least one person at the state legislature, and a really good paper will have several there and one in Washington, D.C. It will have a reporter at the county government and another at city hall. It will staff cops and courts. There are also regional governments, suburban governments, special-purpose governments, and school boards. As libertarians know, all these agencies have power, and they need to be watched.

I worked at the P-I in the business section. We covered mergers, strikes, proxy fights, and initial public stock offerings. Those were the big things. The grunt work was the stock- holder meetings and the earnings of every local public company, with comments on the company’s stock and on its business plans. All these are important.

A good paper also covers cultural things: art, music, plays, dance, movies, novels, restaurants. Without newspapers, some of these things would be covered anyway. Seattle has the subscription-only Puget Sound Business Journal, and for entertainment, the ad-supported Seattle Weekly and The Stranger. But they are weeklies. They can’t cover breaking news.

Some will say, “Breaking news? Forget newspapers. I get my news from the internet.” And where does the internet get it? From newspapers. That’s where radio gets its stories – from newspapers and from the wire, and the wire gets them from newspapers. TV also gets stories from newspapers.

There are internet sites such as RealClearPolitics, which carry lists of newspaper stories; these are aggregators. They are like Google: they provide a shelf for other people’s work. That’s fine, but someone has to create the stuff on the shelf.

What, then? At Reason.com, Jesse Walker suggests that local people will spontaneously fill the vacuums left by departed news reporters. What sort of people? One is the gad- fly, the “character who sits through those council meetings, or the school board meetings,” because that’s the most interesting thing in the world to him. Another is the activist, who follows public policy for a cause. Another is the insider, who works for an institution and wants to get a story out.

These people do exist. But, being unpaid, they are subject to only such reliability as they impose on themselves. Sometimes they don’t show up. They are often partisans with narrow interests. A big-city school board may attract activists for one ethnic group only, gifted students only, or one neighborhood only.

And most of these folks don’t write. They talk.

Without newspapers, there would still be information mountains of it. Already government puts bills, laws, budgets, and court rulings on line. Public companies put quarterly earnings, annual reports, and Securities and Exchange

A good paper will have people in Washington, D.C., at the state legislature, at the county government, at city hall, and at school boards. As libertarians know, all these agencies have power, and they need to be watched.

 

Commission filings on line. But these things are boring, and most people won’t read them. For years, my job was to read them and tell the stories in them, for a daily newspaper.

Without newspapers, organized business, labor, and political groups would cover the things their members cared about, such as the state legislature. Some do this now, and offer their work on the internet for free. But they care about only some things, and they take a partisan view about them.

Real internet newspapers – that is, sites that report their own news – may arise if someone can figure out how to make them pay. Hearst is trying it with seattlepi.com, but the site is a

Admittedly, some reporters have a political bias. Still, if newspapers go away, big, powerful institutions will be left to cover themselves.

 

shadow of the old Post-Intelligencer. As I write, two groups of former P-I journalists are said to be organizing their own web papers as nonprofit ventures, which is an admission that they expect to be subsidized. In Seattle the private wealth exists to do that; the question is whether Bill Gates, Paul Allen, or any of the other rich folks around here would want to shrink his hoard for such a purpose. I am not optimistic. A report in the Seattle Times said that one ex-P-I group had raised $4,000 and that some journalists wanted to get to work right away. God bless them, it sounds like people I know. I wish them luck, but I fear that web curmudgeon Fred Reed was right when he said, “The crucial fact about web journalism is that there is no money in it.”

It boils down to this: newspaper reporters are the largest group of people paid to gather information for the public. They are trained in reporting and writing; they are not intellectually trained about the institutions they cover, and they get the story wrong sometimes. Some of what they write is fluff. Much of it is handed to them by people who are paid to influence information, and sometimes the reporters are influenced. Some of them become shills for the people they cover. Some have a political bias. Admit all this. Still, if newspapers go away, big, powerful institutions will be left largely to cover themselves.

Do you want that? I don’t.

You may say, “If there’s a market for news, someone will provide it.” If there is a paying market, yes. If the market expects it for free, maybe not.

News has typically not been sold. It has been sponsored. One of two classes of the newspapers’ sponsors – classified ads – is gone. The other is display ads, and they are still there, which is why newspapers are still there. If display ads go, newspapers go.

Walker ends his piece for Reason.com with the anarchistic thought that if newspapers disappear, the thing to do “is to tap the information already flowing from citizen to citizen without any journalist’s intervention.” For some things that idea may be the best there is, but think of what it consists of: trained, managed, and paid workers are to be replaced by untrained and unmanaged volunteers, volunteers of undependable knowledge, undependable literacy, and all too dependable partisanship.

To me, that is not progress – but then, I am a newspaperman.

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