The Rocky Mountain News, Cincinnati Post and New York Sun are gone. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published its last edition on Tuesday. The San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer and Minneapolis Star-Tribune are in their death throes. Even the mighty New York Times had to go hat in hand to a shady Mexican billionaire recently to keep the wolves from the door.

The newspaper industry in the US is, it seems, at death’s door, and the punditsphere is abuzz about what may replace it. “Hyperlocal” news, suggests Steven Berlin Johnson. An iTunes model, based on micropayments for online news, ventures Walter Isaacson. Nothing, says Clay Shirky in a widely blogged and discussed essay which argues that the new models of journalism have not been invented yet.

Mostly, the internet is being blamed for the newspaper industry’s troubles, but my own view is that the current problems of US newspaper companies are due more to the general state of the economy (which is causing a fall in advertising revenue across all “traditional” media) and bad business decisions by some newspaper companies (Tribune, New York Times), which saddled themselves with huge debt which the credit crunch has made impossible to refinance. Whatever lies at the root of the problem, I seem to be about the only person under the age of 45 who still thinks it would be a tragedy, and a danger to our way of life, if the newspaper became extinct.

Why, you may ask? Newspapers will disappear, good riddance and we’ll find our news elsewhere.

But that attitude is based on a misunderstanding of what a newspaper is and of what constitutes a successful newspaper. A newspaper is not a stack of newsprint with ink on it. That is just the delivery system. The newspaper is a vast organisation that gathers news, processes it and distributes it. If a newspaper dies, it is not just the stack of newsprint that stops rolling off the printing presses in the dead of night. The whole organisation ceases to exist, and with it its ability to gather and process news. Newspapers spend vast resources on gathering and processing news and the online media that are replacing them don’t, for the simple reason that the online media have not yet discovered a business model that can pay for a large news-gathering infrastructure. So when a newspaper dies, a huge news-gathering infrastructure dies with it, and the readers suffer.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for example, had an editorial staff of 165 for its print edition. In its new online guise, it will have only 20. It stands to reason that 20 can’t do the work of 165, so as a result, it will focus on opinion and entertainment rather than news. Who will take over its coverage of the city, the state and the nation? The new online version cannot be described as a substitute for the newspaper.

What will be the consequence? Dire, if you accept that the news media play an essential role in a democracy by informing citizens, providing a platform for debate, and monitoring government and other powerful institutions on behalf of the public. The various online media that are replacing newspapers will not be able to fulfil those functions on a sustained basis. Democracy, our ability to hold powerful institutions to account, will suffer.

What is a successful newspaper? In almost all the debate around the state of the industry, the assumption is that a successful media organisation is one that makes money. Financial viability becomes the criterion for measuring success, and newspapers are described as failures because they can’t attract enough advertising revenue to pay their bills. But if you think in terms of the role of news media in a democracy, a successful newspaper is one that fulfils its functions of informing, debating and monitoring. The commercial model for newspaper publication that dominates most of the world is just one way of achieving those objectives. There are other ways. The success of public television, for example, is not measured by how much money it makes. So to argue that a newspaper is not successful because it isn’t viable as a business is fallacious. More than a million people pay to read the New York Times (in hard copy) every day. Its services are in huge demand and it does a heck of a job of telling people what is going in the world, their country and their own back yards. It is very, very successful, even though its owners are struggling to repay debts, and its revenues are falling. If it goes under, it can’t be said to have failed as a news organisation. As a business, maybe.
For Steven Berlin Johnson, the demise of city newspapers is an opportunity to increase “hyperlocal” coverage. He writes:

“I adore the City section of the New York Times, but every Sunday when I pick it up, there are only three or four stories in the whole section that I find interesting or relevant to my life — out of probably twenty stories total. And yet every week in my neighbourhood there are easily twenty stories that I would be interested in reading: a mugging three blocks from my house; a new deli opening; a house sale; the baseball team at my kid’s school winning a big game. The New York Times can’t cover those things in a print paper not because of some journalistic failing on their part but rather because the economics are all wrong: there are only a few thousand people potentially interested in those news events, in a city of 8 million people. There are metro area stories that matter to everyone in a city: mayoral races, school cuts, big snowstorms. But most of what we care about in our local experience lives in the long tail. We’ve never thought of it as a failing of the newspaper that its metro section didn’t report on a deli closing, because it wasn’t even conceivable that a big centralized paper could cover an event with such a small radius of interest. But of course, that’s what the web can do … Five years from now, if someone gets mugged within a half mile of my house and I don’t get an email alert about it within three hours, it will be a sign that something is broken.”

Johnson is missing a very important point. There may be only three stories out of 20 in the New York Times City section that he is interested in, but in order to find those, he has to read — or at least skim — the 17 others. And so he knows what is going on in the rest of his city, what is happening to other people. If he has his way, he’ll only know what directly affects him and his immediate neighbours. That is going backwards; instead of building social cohesion, it is fragmenting our lives into cocoons. That cannot be a good thing.

And one last thing: what about the crossword?


Robert Brand

Robert Brand

Robert Brand teaches media law, ethics and economics journalism at Rhodes University. Before joining academia, he worked as a journalist for the Pretoria News, the Star and Bloomberg News.

5 replies on “Those who want newspapers to die are missing the point”