The Outpost is reshaping it's webpage yet again, so there isn't much there to read. But I happen to know for a fact that the editor wrote a column lamenting the state of the newspaper industry, and I have obtained a copy of it through the Freedom of Information Act:
I see in The Outpost that Mike Gulledge, publisher of The Billings Gazette, is speaking to the Rotary Club on Monday on the current state of the newspaper industry.
It is a talk I will miss because I will be working at one of the part-time jobs that help keep me alive when I’m not editing this newspaper. Which tells you something right there about the state of the newspaper industry. So since I can’t go, I’ve been thinking about what I would say if I were giving his speech. It would go something like this:
I stand before you today feeling like the Texas oilmen who said during the bust of the 1980s, “Lord, just give me one more good strike, and this time I promise not to blow it.”
Newspapers have been hanging around for a couple of decades like grumpy old grandpas, frail and outdated but still full of vinegar and seemingly immortal. Now, at long last, they appear to be surrendering all at once to the infirmities of age.
Earlier this year, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer printed its last dead-tree edition, 145 years after the first. It lives online with a staff reduced to 20 reporters.
Denver’s Rocky Mountain News shut down on Feb. 27, one year short of its sesquicentennial. The Tucson Citizen, in business for 138 years, plans to close if its owner can’t find a buyer.
The list of newspapers in bankruptcy, or close to it, or in some other form of financial trouble, or rumored to be in it, could fill the rest of this speech: The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
The nation’s largest newspaper company, Gannett, recently announced another round of unpaid furloughs. Lee Enterprises, Montana’s dominant newspaper company and the Gazette’s owner, just managed to stave off creditors while renegotiating a heavy pile of debt while its stock was hovering around 40 cents a share.
Across the nation, newspaper ad revenues fell 23 percent in the last two years. One in five journalists working for a newspaper in 2001 is now gone.
But hard times are everywhere. Why should newspapers be any different?
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that only 43 percent of Americans say the loss of a local newspaper would be a detriment to the community. Only a third said they would miss reading the paper. Among young people, the numbers are far worse.
So newspapers are dying and nobody cares. Guess I’ll go eat worms.
But the imminent extinction of newspapers, if that’s what is coming, should not pass without blame, or without mourning.
Lord knows, we should have seen it coming. Owning a daily newspaper in a small market was a license to print money for 150 years. Even a company like Lee Enterprises, which invests some in quality, could churn out companywide profits of better than 25 percent for long after the good years started to end. For companies without a conscience, the sky was the limit.
The prevailing attitude was this: Don’t like our newspaper? Start your own. Then learn the hard way about the inexorable logic of monopoly markets, where a 51 percent share of readers eventually brings in 100 percent of advertisers. You can see that logic at work in conservative talk radio to this day.
So when times were good, newspapers raised prices. When times were bad, newspapers laid off staff – and raised prices. At all other times, just for good measure, newspapers raised prices.
We could have done better. We could have invested more in figuring out the internet, in covering local news, in expanding research into finding new and better ways to report stories. The money was just too good.
But publishing kept getting cheaper, and small outfits started nipping at the ankles. Then, with the rise of the internet, publishing and distribution costs dropped, for practical purposes, to zero. That’s great for newspaper publishers, right? The biggest cost, next to staff, suddenly disappeared.
Except that advertisers went with it, distracted by a thousand new websites. And the tired old newspaper, cranky and inefficient and losing readers, remained where the money was.
Now some of the corporations that swallowed up independent dailies to the verge of extinction are in danger themselves of going under. That’s true even though many papers – such as The Billings Gazette – remain sustainable operations on their own.
What will become of them? Expect local buyers to arise - perhaps nonprofit organizations, perhaps employee-led buyouts, perhaps coalitions of advertisers - to attempt to peel local papers out from under the debt that cripples their corporate bosses.
But suppose we don’t care about the papers – about the thousands of jobs that stand to be lost, about the reporters and photographers and editors who will have to find another way to make a living if newspapers die. What of the news itself?
Short answer: Nobody knows. It’s a big world, and somebody, presumably, will figure out a way to make some money putting national and international news on the internet. Some sites will charge for content; some will tap nonprofit foundations to fund investigative reporting; some news will no doubt come from amateur writers and photographers chronicling, for free, what goes on in their corner of the woods.
National and world news is likely to become more concentrated and centralized; regional and local news is likely to become more fragmented. News everywhere is likely to be more partisan, more opinionated, more subservient to the will of whoever is paying the bills. And it won’t always be clear who is paying the bills.
Nobody has figured out what will happen to daily papers that aren’t big enough to command a national audience but are too big to survive without the kind of advertising that pays for day-to-day reporting of city council meetings, crimes, school boards and the occasional public official with fingers in the till.
Just in the last six years, the number of full-time reporters working in the nation’s state capitols has fallen 32 percent. Since 1980, the number of full-time political cartoonists has fallen from 280 to fewer than 90. The government keeps getting bigger, and the number of people paid to keep an eye on it keeps getting smaller.
Democracy doesn’t flow from Washington, D.C. It flows to Washington from thousands of local communities, electing representatives to take their concerns to the Capitol from thousands of cities and school districts, counties and PTAs. For a couple of centuries, those concerns have been reflected in and reported by hundreds of local and regional newspapers.
Now many of them are in trouble. Maybe a few hardy bloggers will take their place. Maybe not.
Nobody knows, and we may not know until it’s too late for newspapers to make much difference.
Lord, just give us one more chance. This time, we promise, we won’t screw it up.