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One City

Chronicle of a Doomed Industry Foretold

According to journalists newspapers are dying. Now, many journalists work at newspapers, creating a potential conflict-of-interest, but I will give them the benefit of the doubt. Dailies in small cities are nearly disappeared and formerly great papers like the Baltimore Sun are barely alive. Even the New York Times recently mortgaged its pretty new building for badly needed cash to stay afloat. Journalists’ predilection for hailing the demise of their own industry is famous, but this time they’re right  (an excellent discussion by Eric Alterman traces the downward arc with plenty of context).
Enter: Smarmy, self-satisfied (at least, at the end) fluff piece on the first newspapers to go online in 1981.
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“Richard Halloran: Owns Home Computer.” Priceless. But the bearded editor from the San Francisco Examiner delivers the money quote:


And we’re not in it to make money, we’re, ah, probably not going to lose a lot, but we aren’t gonna make much either. 

Hm. Yes. How about: in less than 25 years this technology will destroy your industry. 
It’s easy to make fun of people from the past who didn’t see massive, paradigm-shifting trends coming, even as those trends were bearing down on their tiny brains like an eighteen-wheeler with blown brakes. It is, in fact, both easy and fun.
In this case, however, the KRON report is cool because it anticipates both the promise of news via the internet and most of the dynamics that are killing newspapers today: a majority are/were local, and reliant on local advertising and subscriptions; newspapers didn’t anticipate the seismic effect the internet would have on their business model, and continued running 1980-style operations in 1999; with the exception of the Times and a few others, newspapers’ websites are still organized like physical broadsheets, instead of taking advantage of RSS and social networking technology to deliver their product.
Downloading the news may have cost a user $10 in bandwidth fees and two hours of time in 1981, but now it’s free and instantaneous and consumers have no incentive to pay for it. 
My concern: What happens to this wonderful blogosphere when we run out of primary source material? As Alterman points out:


Despite the many failures at newspapers, the vast majority of reporters and editors have devoted years, even decades, to understanding the subjects of their stories. It is hard to name any bloggers who can match the professional expertise, and the reporting, of, for example, the Post s Barton Gellman and Dana Priest, or the Times’ Dexter Filkins and Alissa Rubin.
In October, 2005, at an advertisers’ conference in Phoenix, Bill Keller complained that bloggers merely “recycle and chew on the news,” contrasting that with the Times’ emphasis on what he called “a ‘journalism of verification,’ ” rather than mere “assertion.”

I don’t think that’s quite fair, but I take the point. I’m also worried about ever-fragmenting echo chambers whose audiences are smaller but shout louder at each other and their self-designated opposition. Think of Kos, but meaner and without the MSM to feed them facts. It’s a Road Warrior kind of scenario. 
Still, industries and professionals adapt:


The survivors among the big newspapers will not be without support from the nonprofit sector. ProPublica, funded by the liberal billionaires Herb and Marion Sandler and headed by the former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger, hopes to provide the mainstream media with the investigative reporting that so many have chosen to forgo. The Center for Independent Media … [has created a] Web site called the Washington Independent. It’s one of a family of news-blogging sites meant to pick up some of the slack left by declining staffs in local and Washington reporting, with the hope of expanding everywhere.

Then again, Road Warrior:

And so we are about to enter a fractured, chaotic world of news, characterized by superior community conversation but a decidedly diminished level of first-rate journalism. The transformation of newspapers from enterprises devoted to objective reporting to a cluster of communities, each engaged in its own kind of “news”––and each with its own set of “truths” upon which to base debate and discussion––will mean the loss of a single national narrative and agreed-upon set of “facts” by which to conduct our politics. News will become increasingly “red” or “blue.”

I think the word is ‘balkanized.’ In the meantime, I’ll stick to blogging and let other folks report the facts.

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Greg Zwahlen

posted January 29, 2009 at 9:32 am

many journalists work at newspapers, creating a potential conflict-of-interest
It is a little unseemly how much attention this is getting. The self-absorption of it all is apparent in the fact that for all of the countless stories about it I’ve read about the newspaper industry dying, I haven’t seen one story yet that took a comparative look at how newspapers in other countries are faring.

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Stillman Brown

posted January 29, 2009 at 12:59 pm

I’ve wondered about that – is our newspaper industry simply a dinosaur that has to slim down like European newspapers?
Or is it a cultural thing that doesn’t translate well across borders?
I’ve also noticed that I don’t remember news I read online as well. There is something about sitting down with a paper and a cup of tea…

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posted January 29, 2009 at 4:32 pm

we’ll all be reading the bbc for our news i suppose.
if millions of people are logging on to the nytimes site to read their news every day, couldn’t ad rates there be high enough to keep the print paper going and journalists paid? or is that not how it works?
i subscribe to a couple of news magazines, but i can’t see myself ever reading a printed paper again…

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Ellen Scordato

posted January 29, 2009 at 4:52 pm

As I dimly recall, the BBC is supported in part by TV license fees. To own a TV in the UK, you need to pay a fee. These fees, in part, support the BBC so it’s not so reliant on ad income. But this is, of course, changing fast.
There’s an interesting piece in the New Yorker about how when newspapers started in this country, they were NOT aiming for some kind of journalistic objective truth but proudly proclaimed they were a place for all to shout their opinions.
Yet the 1700s were a time of great liberty and ferment and all that. A revolution. Worth a read.

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Stillman Brown

posted January 30, 2009 at 1:52 am

In college I remember reading a hard news story (i.e., not editorial) from a New York paper circa 1900 that was in full muckraking mode – something about worker’s right and quarantines – and thinking, “wow, now THIS is journalism I could get in to.” So maybe a return to Grub Street isn’t a bad thing.
I wonder about that too Ellen – the NYTimes is, like, the only game in town. They should be making a killing on ads.

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Patrick Groneman

posted January 30, 2009 at 10:53 am

That video is great

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