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The Exaggerated Death of Newspapers

Dennis Byrne 24 December 2007 5 Comments

Newspapers are dead. They didn’t have to be, but their window of opportunity closed long ago. — Steve Rhodes, Beachwood Reporter, a blog.

“I’m sick and tired of listening to everybody talk about and commiserate over the end of newspapers. They ain’t ended, they’re not going to end and I think they have a great future.” – Sam Zell, new Tribune Co. boss.

My money is on Sam. And my apologies to Zell for mentioning Rhodes in the same breathe.

Rhodes apparently doesn’t catch the irony of pronouncing newspapers DOA, while he fuels his blog with daily rants about…newspapers. If Rhodes is right that the papers already are dead, I guess that means he’s living off a cadaver.

But Rhodes isn’t alone. He appeared on a recent WTTW-TV Chicago Tonight panel dissecting the industry’s supposed death throes. But as Mark Twain might have advised, it’s always dangerous to pronounce anyone or anything dead while it’s still moving. Consider how radio and movies were pronounced dead when television showed up in the 1950s. As the big shows jumped from to TV from radio and people stayed home to watch the tube, the smart guys all said radio was through. Movie theaters might was well be turned into bowling alleys.

Today, such predictions look extraordinarily stupid, as does the conjecture that newspapers are, or soon will be, dead, thanks to the Internet, cable TV and whatever else the fashion of the day pronounces. Newspapers can, and will, make the same kinds of adjustments that saved radio and film. Actually, I dare say that today they are as strong, if not stronger, than pre-TV.

As obvious as it sounds, what newspapers need to succeed is the recognition that the business is more about news than it is about papers. And for all the criticism that newspaper management deserves for too slowing catching on to the possibilities of the Internet, the dawning is taking hold all over. Is there a major newspaper in the country that now can’t be accessed on your computer?

Overcoming problems intrinsic to newspapers is not something new. In the ‘50s, suburbanization and expressways cut into the street sales of afternoon papers. Distance and congestion also cut into home delivery sales. The copy deadline for many home-delivered newspapers at the old Chicago Daily News was 10:30 a.m.; it didn’t take long after the ascendancy of the evening TV news for readers to catch on that they were missing a half day of news by reading the “evening” papers.

But the papers weren’t sitting still. In the early 1960s, the Daily News was consulting with Diebold, Inc. about fighting the changing dynamics and demographics of the industry by setting up remote printing plants in the suburbs, an idea that led to the creation of a new daily, the Day, in the northwest suburbs. Eventually, the paper was bought out by Paddock, publisher of a chain of northwest suburban community newspapers and became today’s Daily Herald.

There’s no denying the declining circulation and advertising revenues, but to predict the demise of newspapers because of competition with the Internet, management stinginess or whatever, is too narrow of a hypothesis to fit reality.

To fully understand the comprehensive nature of the decline, you also need to bring into the discussion the public’s loss of trust in newspapers because of real of perceived bias, ignorance of the market (e.g. wave after wave of out-of-town managers at the Sun-Times), and, let’s not forget, just plain bad news judgment.

I’d also throw in the ridiculous notion held by too many editors that they had to emulate USA Today’s formula for graphics and truncated news. It was the beginning, 20 years ago, of a gradual but steady decline of quality journalism and the birth of the patronizing attitude that readers bought papers because they look pretty. Taken to the extreme, they end up looking like the jumbled mess that the Chicago Sun-Times has become.

Speaking of the Sun-Times, its problems were intensified by the decision, under a number of owners and managers, to become, in effect, a niche paper. By writing off the suburbs, as evidenced by its proclamation that it is the city’s progressive (liberal), independent newspaper, the paper has just about completed branding itself as a sub-regional, rather an a metropolitan newspaper. In effect, it is slipping toward becoming Chicago’s version of the Daily Herald.

Nothing’s wrong with the Sun-Times trying to recapture its old brand, that of the region’s unabashedly liberal newspaper, although it will have to do a better job of being the region’s thoughtful liberal paper. Take Friday’s knee-jerk editorial, hyping the use of ethanol. It was totally unconvincing because it failed to consider the fuel’s obvious problems, such as ethanol’s true cost; the huge government subsidies and mandates required to force ethanol onto the market; the growing competition for the same feedstock by food and energy producers, and its impact on the impoverished, hungry and starving (I’d think that would have been a leading concern of a “progressive” newspaper); the impact of the subsidies, mandates on obtaining the kind of “fair trade” concessions demanded by—who else?—liberals.

This isn’t meant to diminish the ruinous impact of Conrad Black, David Radler and the other thieves who bled the Sun-Times of money and resources needed to maintain its market share, if not its excellence. Sadly, some vestiges of the Black/Radler era remain, with out-of-town management who never really understood what a great newspaper town that Chicago long had been and what it takes to meet the thirst for real news that grips (or at least used to) this town. (Not to mention a management that grossly failed to appreciate the grit and talent of staffers who have been laboring to keep the paper’s standards high.)

Integration with the Internet and new technologies will happen; it’s inevitable. Newspapers will catch on to changing reading habits and information exchange.

5 Comments »

  • Pat Hickey (author) said:

    I love newspapers. I wish that we had one.

    Sam Zell might just be what the industry needs – an owner with sense of stewardship rooted in the City the paper purports to serve.

    The Sun Times, barring some shanghaied talent, became a bowdlerized Chicago Reader and the Chicago Tribune has a touch of its virus as well – Eric Zorn’s hushed toned worship of the now unemployed John Conroy e.g. .

    Newspapers, it seems to me, should report the news and not try to be an extension of a University think-tank, law school, or school of journalism.

    This wholesale insult to very people who buy newspapers by lazy, quick-fix, ‘edgey’ editorial boards has also developed a Thug Comfort Zone in Chicago. That is my opinion as a reader. I am not an editorial board.

    http://hickeysite.blogspot.com/search?q=thug+comfort+zone

  • Dan Kelley (author) said:

    It was announced that “The Cincinnati Post” will be closing as of the New Year.

    I think that the rise of journalism schools on the campuses of American universities marked the beginning of the end for many American newspapers. Many of the J school graduates spent years being indoctrinated by leftists and few, if any, have any sense of objectivity, judging from their reporting. Too many have been taught to be advocacy journalists and they all want to be the next Woodward or Bernstein.

    If you ever have the opportunity to read archival newspapers while doing some research, it becomes readily apparent how little actual news reporting occurs today in comparison to decades past. To keep informed in the present era, you need to read three or four local and suburban papers and several blogs to piece together the truth for yourself.

  • Bill Dwyer (author) said:

    Dennis-

    good column on newspapers, but I’m curious-

    which suburbs do you refer to when you state the Sun-Times is “writing off the suburbs”? with its progressive focus?

    Certainly not Evanston, Oak Park and even River Forest, among others. Check recent voting trends if you disagree.

    You write as if the suburbs are monolithic politically, which is simply not the case.

  • Dennis Byrne (author) said:

    Consider the words of one of the city’s greatest newsmen, Raymond R. Coffey: “If a story says, ‘…according to the latest study,’ it should be banned from the newspaper.” The point being that instead of going out and hunting down actual news, too many reporters take the lazy, ideological route by quoting some academic’s (worthless) study proving some preconceived notion.

  • Pat Hickey (author) said:

    Ray Coffey was the real deal. Don’t leave yourself out of the mix either Dennis.

    Real newsmen were replaced by automatons- pre-programed ink-slingers.

    Ray spent his days ducking bullets and mortar rounds with the Marines at Khe Sahn – the only journalist to stay with them BTW; covering the troubles in Northern Ireland; running the London beat; the Reagan White House and reporting on what actually took place and not waiting to read what someone else had to say about events, ideas and consequences.

    Too many young journalists want to be Royko – they should want to be Ray Coffey – or Dennis Byrne.

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