May 12, 2009

The final editions of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Rocky Mountain News and The Cincinnati Post.

Newspapers in Peril? Hold the Obituaries

Newspapers are down, but not out. In some fashion, size and format they, and the journalism they practice, are likely to be around for a long time.

There’s no question that the newspaper industry, as this nation has known it for more than 100 years, is undergoing wrenching change. Big media companies and their stockholders have seen share value plunge to mere pennies. Big-city newspapers have closed and hundreds of others, big and small, have made deep staff cuts. Editions have fewer pages — in some places, there are fewer weekly editions. First Amendment advocates worry about a diminishing ability to serve as a "watchdog on government."

But all of this is a long way from justifying an obituary notice right now for newspapers as an industry — or, as some have suggested, to fear for the very existence of a free press in America.

  • First, as to whether "newsprint" editions are doomed to die out, the news for some isn’t good. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Denver’s Rocky Mountain News have shut down; the Boston Globe needed huge union concessions to avert a threatened closing and other major dailies are considering filing, or have filed, for bankruptcy protection. Still, the "PI" and "The Rocky" were part — and the weaker part, at that — of a Joint Operating Agreement with the economically stronger newspaper in town. It’s not quite accurate to characterize the ending of life-support measures for those two patients as representative of what’s ailing an entire industry.
  • Second, many newspapers remain profitable but face cutbacks and staff reductions because at current income vs. cost levels, those papers are not making enough money to satisfy local investors or national stockholders.
  • Third, some of the harshest critics say the financial crisis for many newspaper groups is due in large part to big debts, run-up acquisitions made worse by the nation’s recession, and bad planning or lack of foresight in stemming ad and readership losses to Web-based competitors. As we’re seeing in the banking, automobile and mortgage industries, those who took the riskiest risks in pursuit of the biggest profits may not survive. But the more financially-conservative brethren may.
  • Finally, others point to the relative economic health of locally owned or small-group newspapers that exist in communities where there is as yet no Internet competitor and where the newspaper remains a source for classified advertising and readers that advertisers want to reach.

Newspapers will change. Their look, size, frequency and subject matter will evolve in response to the reach and content of online news and information sources. In its simplest form, this may mean no more baseball stats, Wall Street stocks and TV or movie listings on a printed page.

But for years to come — even as Web sites and bloggers mature and develop reputations for credibility and move beyond opinion into news and investigative operations — newspapers, perhaps in partnership with bloggers, broadcasters, and others in their communities, will remain required reading for stories and commentary prepared and presented by trusted, authoritative professionals. We may even keep the "news" and lose the "paper" part — as devices such as the latest Kindle "electronic book" provide the look and page-style format of a newspaper, but present it via an online mechanism.

One of the ironies of the Web is that as more information is presented online, it becomes more difficult for individuals to aggregate it in a meaningful way.

I have no quarrel with those who say the newspaper of today won’t be here tomorrow. I just resist the idea that tomorrow necessarily will come without some kind of newspaper.

Gene Policinski is a former managing editor at USA Today. His and other columns on First Amendment issues can be found at firstamendmentcenter.org.

Related story: Newspapers in Peril? This Time, It's Different

Related video: Digital Newspapers: The New Reality

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