The Downfall of the Great American Newspaper

Soul of the Free Press

December, 11, 2008, by Peter Eichenberger

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News is what somebody else wants suppressed. All the rest is advertising.—Lord Northcliffe

Advertising is the heart and soul of the free press.—Josephus Daniels

Regarding the decade-long, ritual suicide of the US paper and ink “news” business, it seems to me the disaster is unfolding via two factors: (1) The smartest guys in the room, as is so often the case, aren’t and/or (2) there is likely some deliberate nature to this.

Other nations’ newspapers seem to be bearing up reasonably well. It isn’t so much that people don’t “like” newspapers anymore; on the contrary, surveys show that a desire for them remains high. It is simply that more and more readers are dissatisfied with today’s offerings. What is so unique about the Land of the Free, Home of the First Amendment? Newspapers are unequivocal in pointing the fingers of blame at the Internet, as if it were a vampire wolf gobbling precious advertising revenue. But sagging ad revenue is just another symptom.

In olden times, newspapers were operated by individuals, families and groups who valued (or claimed to value) quality reporting and content. By contrast, today’s newspaper is just another financial venture increasingly under the purview of Wall-Street bean-counters whose concerns are profits—and in the case of the news biz, double-digit profits. In the pursuit of money, quality has suffered.

“We’re boring, predictable, thin in our coverage and often intellectually lazy and shallow,” said William Hartnett of the Palm Beach Post.

There is a business strategy called the “Boston Box.” The next-to-last-step in a commercial product’s life-cycle is the “cash cow” stage: sucking all the money one can from a mature product by lowering production costs and, if possible, buying the competition. Newspapers have long relied on monopoly status to insure fat profits, as seen earlier in the acquisition of evening papers, such as The Raleigh Times by The News and Observer. The feeding frenzy escalated to where today (in the sector of corporate media) a handful of syndicates and a little over one hundred people control most everything one reads, hears and sees. An obvious downside is that when there is nobody chewing on your ass, when there is no threat, expending the energy to survive becomes superfluous. An analogy would be a species of bird which lands on an island with no predators and forgets how to fly—the dodo, for example, an ungainly, flightless, now-extinct creature.

Locally, this sort of evolution was displayed by both The News and Observer and The Independent. The Indy’s decision to buy Spectator from Creative Loafing, so I was told, emerged from the two publications’ bloody fight over ad revenue. The fix was—buy the competition. This thirst for ad revenue cost the Indy a million dollars more than the seven-fifty K Creative Loafing paid Bernie Reeves for Spectator a few years before and immediately placed the Indy under a staggering debt load. The Indy’s next move, mindful of that hillbilly who might live in a chicken coop, but by Gawd, gonna drive that new Cadillac, was to their new top-shelf headquarters on Pettigrew, which padded some egos—and their debt. Meanwhile, as the newspaper biz began to roll off the table, the N&O’s owner, McClatchy, went deep and bought another newspaper chain, Knight-Ridder, as prescient as going to a Hummer dealership this June and throwing down on a brace of H2s for the family.

When the money got tight, both papers’ reactions were as to a badger in a leg hold trap: start gnawing off staff, contributors and sections. At the Indy, when the call for cuts went out, former editor Richard Hart bravely supported his writers, salvaging, for instance, my column—at half pay. A new editor later, I was sausage.

“There’s nothing in the News and Observer,” said my bud Richard Martin. “It gets thinner and thinner with the same boring stories day after day. The local stuff isn’t even there anymore. Looks like pretty soon the N&O will be a three day tabloid.”

In the absence of reporting, content has to come from somewhere. Wire services and the biggies like The New York Times have become wholesalers for the black stuff to fill the white spaces between the ads. News has become a commodity, no different than hog bellies and aluminum ore, to be purchased as cheaply as possible. Most US papers are mere cribbed versions of every other paper.

Besides preserving profit, there is a quiet benefit to da man that remains in the shadows for this sort of squeezing of news. The necking of information gives the elite a dang-near Orwellian level of control we’ve seen developing for some time. In 1972, Senator Frank Church’s Senate hearings uncovered the CIA’s Operation Mockingbird, where the “company” steered public opinion through moles salted in the US newspapers and broadcast outlets. The upshot was, well—nothing, to the point that a decade after the hearings, the CIA ended up owning Capital Cities (ABC) during the Iran-Contra affair.

A threat to the control is occurring with the Internet-fueled public rejection of corporate/government (for they are inseparable) bullshit. For example, the unflinching PR service Dick Cheney’s ink-stained lackeys provided for the Bush Administration’s pre-invasion crack-pipe WMD claims led to the current US Profade (a variation on Crusade) a for-profit military adventure promulgated by the neo-cons and their boot-lickers in the Democratic controlled US Congress. To this day, the press insists on terming the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan “wars,” a word connoting a military contest between powers or nations, which they were at first (although illegal ones, in that those nations were attacked for reasons that were simply untrue). Wars? Nope. Each day of military operations are simply additions to a growing mound of crimes: murder, assault and destruction of property.

Like fractals where the smallest oak twig mirrors the largest adult specimens, there are similarities shared by the Indy and the largest newspaper consortiums like McClatchy. The cuts lead to reader flight which induces further cuts—and so forth, very like a speed wobble on a motorcycle where the rider’s frantic attempts to maintain control exacerbate what started as a minor instability and puts them in the ditch. Indy and McClatchy business and editorial decisions have been accompanied by significant drops in readership. At the Indy, decreasing circulation may or may not have been intentionally concealed until they got busted and had to alter the masthead figure from a fictitious “50,000,” to “The Triangle’s largest locally-owned newspaper,” instead of the correct 38,000 and change.

Dig it, y’all: readers are bailing from your papers because of decreases in quality of coverage and content. But, unlike the old days, when the reading newsie was faced with a choice of a monopoly newspaper or the deep blue, today, there are choices. In the absence of credible, interesting information, thinking readers are fleeing in search of valid, factual content.

The largest casualty may be the newspaper itself. Some don’t mourn the loss, citing, correctly, that newspapers are ecological nightmares in terms of resources and expensive to produce (business being, as we all know, in business to make money). But the larger issue is access to information. The demise of the hard-copy newspaper will remove that record from permanent availability, as anyone who has been stymied in a search for an item formerly on the Internet will attest to.

But there is also that the disturbing and antidemocratic specter of visually-based information cum propaganda, disseminated by sources like television and yes, the Internet, will further supplant reading, an act which requires reflection and thinking. The growing non-reading majority is, wrote Pulitzer Prize writer Chris Hedges, “dependent on skillfully manipulated images for information,” and has “separated itself from the literate print-based culture. It cannot differentiate between lies and truth. It is informed by simplistic childish narratives and cliches.” The looming and avoidable demise of the printed newspaper and its attendant losses could very well be nigh, a demise that in no small way lies with newspapers themselves.








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  • corey3rd
    12/11 07:56 PM

    a pal who works at a local small Wake county paper says their numbers are doing well because they give coverage to the community instead of wasting space on wire service junk. The news editor’s goal is to provide the local focus that isn’t getting covered by WRAL or the N&O. This isn’t that hard of a task. There’s no point for the News & Observer to give headlines to stuff that’s been major stories on all the 24 hr. news channels. They need to connect with the area. Although that’s nearly impossible now that we’re lumped in with Charlotte for coverage.

    Remember when there was that great weekly paper that was just comics? And then the Indy bought it and just dumped the comics in their pages? Those guys have hands of lead.

  • luke
    12/12 03:45 AM

    it was called the ‘Comic Review’ and it ruled.

  • Michael Mahan
    12/12 09:07 AM

    I think we need to bail out the daily newspaper, at least more so than crooked mortgage companies and banks, and the big car companies.

    The role of the American newspaper in our communities is important. Reporters roaming government meetings and searching for news to report on keeps us honest.

  • Taylor
    12/12 10:09 AM

    Good topic for an article and many points are well taken.  Not sure I see a need though for the following sentence: 

    “Wars? Nope. Each day of military operations are simply additions to a growing mound of crimes: murder, assault and destruction of property.”

    This is debatable at best, inflammatory at worst and adds nothing to the article, save a distraction from the author’s relevant arguments on the newspaper industry.

  • Monthly Newspaper Publisher
    12/18 08:20 PM

    As a newspaper publisher, the real threat to newspapers has not been the Internet but the proliferation of these crappy fluffy print magazines that are sucking the advertising out of your regular newspaper.

    You’ve seen them here in the Triangle—Wake Living, Cary Living, Eastern Wake Living, Penny Saver, etc.  They have absolutely no news value at all in my opinion.  They have articles on how to make a cheese ball (that appear in all three “local” Living editions).

    Do they send reporters to the school board meeting?  No.  Do you stand out in the rain and cold taking pictures of the Christmas parade?  No.  Do they actually try to keep politicians honest?  No.

    They wouldn’t dream of running a controversial article that might do some public good, but local advertisers are willing to fork over $800 an advertisement with them in a “safe” magazine, but that same advertiser will complain to the local paper over their tiny $80 cost to run an advertisement.

    Yes, some newspapers are to blame for their own demise and yes, there are some greedy owners and publishers out there who wouldn’t know a news story from a hole in the ground (Indy is one of them).

    However, when newspapers start taking a dirt nap and bite the dust be sure to call up all of the slick glossy magazines around the community and ask them to cover “the news.” 

    By the way, readership on the web means absolutely nothing to advertisers.  Ask WRAL, the N&O, and every other online branch of a media outlet.  The N&O and others are doing you a favor by posting articles on the web as there’s no business model there.

  • local advertiser
    12/18 10:36 PM

    >>but local advertisers are willing to fork over $800 an advertisement with them in a “safe” magazine, but that same advertiser will complain to the local paper over their tiny $80 cost to run an advertisement.<< I agree that these local publications of dubious news value muddy the water, but question the implication that newspapers have somehow been unfairly victimized by the competition. Advertisers didn’t shift dollars to local magazines because they were safe, but because they presented a more cost effective way to reach potential customers. They needed our business, and knew we had options. The N&O needed our business, but neither knew it nor thought we had other options. If a quarter page black and white ad in the N&O costs about $2,000 (which it does—not really sure of the open rate, could be +/- some change), what could you get from them for eighty bucks? A sandwich and a bag of chips? Monopolies grow fat and lazy, but remain viable so long as they remain monopolies. The introduction of competition to such an arena extracts a quick and brutal dividend. With the demise of the Raleigh Times a couple of decades ago, removing any serious competition for the N&O, advertising rates soared. Local businesses never really felt the love, and now the pig didn’t even bother wearing lipstick for us anymore. Large media buyers, and national accounts—that’s where it was at. So when local and regional magazines gave us the opportunity to reach potential clients in a more targeted and often much cheaper way, of course we shifted advertising dollars away from the daily paper. Newspapers made themselves vulnerable by treating their advertisers as a captive audience. We no longer are. As a reader, I will miss the N&O as it evolves into an increasingly homogenous roll of pulpwood and soy ink on my morning doorstep. As an advertiser, I won’t miss paying monopolistic advertising rates, which I’ve done for years out of necessity because there was no other effective way to let people know my business existed. To the question of what happens when the papers “take a dirt nap,” there won’t be any need to call the glossies and ask them to cover the news; where there is a demand, someone with fill the need. My guess is that papers will “grow” smaller and more local, and blogs will become a more significant source of local news. State, national and international news will reach us via the internet. Regardless, we won’t go without. And, BTW, agreed that Comic Review ruled.

  • Newspaper Publisher
    12/19 03:09 PM

    Local Advertiser:

    What will $800 get you in a slick glossy?  A half page advertisement that reaches 10,000 readers every quarter?  I think that’s part of the problem is that advertisers were being cheap as hell, asking something for nothing, while at the same time naively falling for dubious readership claims from other pubs.  Maybe you can advertise on Business Leader’s website where they once claimed to get a “million hits” a day.  Suckers deserve to lose their money.

    Again, go ahead and advertise with the fluffy magazines and ask them to cover important topics for Raleigh and the Triangle.  They won’t, pure and simple.

    And watch as your quality of life continues to diminish with crooked politicians, higher taxes, and worsening schools continue to run amok.

    Keep waiting for blogs like this one to “fill the gaps” in coverage.  Websites and blogs try for a while and another one will eventually come along as well to take its place, but again they won’t get the advertisers.  And don’t even think that web-only publications are selling advertisements—just ask WRAL how much they make off their website.  (Nothing).

    The simple fact is that a lot of local advertisers like yourself prefer magazines and publications with NO local content. 

    No one is telling you that you HAVE to advertise with your local newspaper, be it the N&O, Herald-Sun, Indy, Cary News, etc. who all don’t charge $2000 for an advertisement. But don’t be surprised when a paper reduces its workforce due to advertising loss and coverage starts to suck because of it.

    Be sure to complain loudly to the Triangle Styles, Autotraders, Z-Spotlights of the world.  They’re ready to take your money, not provide you with news.

  • corey3rd
    12/19 03:42 PM

    But what happens to your ad when it gets buried in a worthless section of the paper with a bunch of non-appealing pictures. Anyone really want to buy a new toaster oven as they stare at the remains of townhouse?

    $800 is the amount of cash it costs to pay a decent employee for two or more weeks. Will the fishwrapper be working for 2 weeks? At least the cozy glossy magazine gives you copies that you can leave in the bathroom at work.

    If newspapers care about readers, they’d expand the comic section and work ads on those pages.

  • local advertiser
    12/20 02:28 PM

    MNP: You write that >>The simple fact is that a lot of local advertisers like yourself prefer magazines and publications with NO local content.<< This many be true of some, but not me. I prefer whatever brings people in the door. My first priority is not subsidizing the newspapers in their worthy mission, but to keep my business in the black. I’ve found that a fairly broad mix works best for me. I almost certainly advertise with you if your monthly paper is in the Triangle, as well as the N&O, the Herald Sun, the Chapel Hill News, the Indy, and—yes—several of the small niche magazines. So, for me it isn’t either/or. The local papers have their hands deep in my pocket; I’m doing my part for their preservation. And dueling Jeremiads seem pointless. We really aren’t all going to hell in a hand basket either way.  Technology is changing the way information is gathered and disseminated, whether through advances in publishing technologies that make it feasible for a plethora of small magazines to sprout up almost overnight, or through the internet. Newspapers and advertisers will both have to evolve and adapt to the changing landscape. I don’t know how it will all shake out. Some will adapt and survive, even thrive; others will not. But I’m optimistic that local business as a species will survive and it will find new ways to reach potential clients; likewise, news will be gathered and shared in some fashion. We are story-telling creatures. Studies of populations in even the most challenging environments—prisons, concentration camps, refugee camps—suggest that a means of collecting and sharing the news of the day is one of the most pervasive and robust institutions to arise.  No matter what happens to the dailies, we won’t be left in the dark.

  • Kim Weiss
    12/29 03:45 PM

    To read a truly insightful take on the demise of the daily newspapers, check out editor/publisher Bernie Reeves “Between Issues” column at http://www.metronc.com.

  • corey3rd
    12/29 04:21 PM

    hadn’t realized that Godfrey had left the Indie for the Mighty Metro.

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