The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers

The Sad State of Print Journalism Today

The Rocky Mountain News closed down on Feb. 27th, 2008, just 55 days short of its 150th anniversary. Having lost $16 million dollars last year and unable to find a buyer, the News’s owner decided to shut it down instead of letting it limp on with mounting losses.

The gloomy tale of Denver’s newspaper is alleviated by the fact that as one of the few remaining two-daily-newspaper cities in the United States, Denver will still have daily local journalism from the Denver Post.

The same can’t be said of San Francisco, where the owners of that city’s only daily paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, has warned of massive layoffs and bankruptcy. Separately, the Tribune Company, owners of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, filed for bankruptcy last year. Seattle is about to lose the print edition of its 148 year-old Post-Intelligencer.

We may be witnessing end times for the traditional concept of the daily print newspaper. In our 24-hour news cycle, internet-obsessed world, there has been much gnashing of teeth in trying to figure out a new, viable business model for print journalism in order to compete with fast and loose blogs. The new business proposals have demonstrated just how desperate newspaper owners are since the wave of consolidation that swept through newspaper for the last twenty years failed.

One idea is that papers could be supported by foundations as purely non-profit entities, a public trust in every spirit of the word. This is a little starry-eyed and a successful result would still be a smaller newspaper industry lacking in local coverage.

Attempts to charge for online content, like the New York Times’ TimesSelect or The Economist, have mostly failed. One way then of “monetizing eyeballs” is for online users to submit “micropayments” for their stories, where individual articles would cost 20 cents. Such a concept is a worthy experiment, but the resulting revenue likely will fall short of the cash flows that supported yesterday’s news organizations.

Rather than make uninformed recommendations about the financing of the newspaper business, I will offer a few observations about an area I am more familiar with: the product the papers put out.

My biggest criteria for what makes a good newspaper is that it provides you with a view of the current state of the world that is less filtered and more complete than other information outlets. A good newspaper should be able to give a relatively uninformed, time-deficient reader a balanced and true summary of that beyond one’s home and office.

With that, I present Exhibit A of what is currently ailing the newspaper industry: the Washington Post.

(Note that the Post does a few things well. Its investigative pieces are still among the best, as we all saw with its series on the mistreatment of Iraq veterans at Walter Reed Hospital. the Post also handles Beltway politics with aplomb, though their competitive advantage is being chipped away by the likes of Politico and others.)

(Finally, I have learned far more about the suburban DC area than I would like to know through its relentless lifestyle and human interest stories on its residents.)

There are many issues with the Washington Post; if you learned about China exclusively through its reportage, you would be forgiven for thinking the entire country was one big protest on top of an environmental disaster surrounded by armed soldiers. I will try to illuminate some of the other problems with the paper with the representative examples.

First, an article should explain a phenomenon as fully as it can. This is especially true of articles on scientific breakthroughs. A piece on slow light (“Putting the Brakes on Light Speed”, Jan. 17 2007) had little description for this scientific phenomenon beyond “shoot light down tubes of heated cesium.” As someone who spent three years doing research in optoelectronics, I could have understood a basic explanation if provided one. But there was none. The article does little except report on the existence of a scientific breakthrough.

Second, a basic principle of good journalism is that the reporting be accurate with sound conclusions. This is not the case with a recent article on homebuyers purchasing smaller homes (“Seeking a Smaller Footprint”, Jan. 24, 2009). Using a single statistic about smaller homes being sold and a bevy of “green housing” examples from a developer, the reporter draws the conclusion that buyers are interested are interested in reducing their home sizes and be green. This is done with nary a consideration of how important the economy might be and it lacks a single anecdote from an actual home buyer about what they are considering when they buy.

Finally, a paper should not be overtly pushing an agenda. A recent article on so-called “ecomigration” (“Climate Fears Are Driving ‘Ecomigration’ Across the Globe,” Feb. 23, 2009) was trying to maintain coverage of the threat of climate change with an unsubstantiated trend. The example of a family moving in anticipation of climate change turned out to be a suburban DC family moving to New Zealand. Apparently the reporter could not get a quote from one of the 12 to 17 million Bangladeshis referenced in the story that might have to move due to flooding.

This front-page article was so full of bunk that a writer from Slate, itself subsidiary of the Washington Post, complained that the paper “lofted onto its front page a doozy of a bogus trend story”.

Overall, this is slack editorship overseeing the Washington Post, one that is not much better than the blogs that print journalists so often decry. It is downright pitiable when you consider that this is the paper that broke the Watergate scandal and took down a sitting President. Katharine Graham, matriarch of the Post during its heyday, would turn in her grave to see what her august newspaper has become.

The dailies should follow the lead of business journalism, often the best type of reporting currently out there. The Wall Street Journal is one of the better products because people make decisions that have financial consequences based on business reporting, enforcing a level of accuracy.

As a result, The Wall Street Journal is the only major newspaper in the US that readers will pay a hefty pay subscription for. (Though Rupert Murdoch, the owner, has been hinting that he will get rid of the high rate in order to reach more readers.)

The irony is that, for the newspaper industry, instead of someone else’s money on the line, it is their survival at risk. Some of them are not writing like it.