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The Sky is Falling on Newspapers. Sorry, Dad.

posted by Angie Littwin

“Nobody outside the newspaper industry really understands just how bad things are.”  For over a decade I’ve heard this statement and others like it everywhere – at the dinner table and on family vacations, over the telephone and in the grocery store on trips home.  I’ve heard them from my father, a newspaper journalist of 40 years, and from his friends, most of whom also began their reporting careers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

As of today, nobody in or outside the business can deny the sad reality.  The Tribune Company, which owns two of the nation’s great newspapers – the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune – as well as six others, has filed for bankruptcy.  Sam Zell, the chain’s controversial CEO, insists that the bankruptcy is simply a way of restructuring the company's debt and not a catastrophe, but it’s hard to see how this could be true.  Even if he’s right in about the outcome of this one bankruptcy – which I doubt – he’s wrong in the more important sense.  Newspapers are dying.

I should know. Less than a week ago, my father’s current paper, the Rocky Mountain News, was put up for sale.  In the current climate, with credit scarce and other papers on the brink (including the New York Times, which is – incredibly – offering its legendary office building as collateral for an operating-expenses loan), this almost certainly means that the paper will fold.  Probably the best that the employees can hope for is that the process of folding takes long enough for them to find other jobs.  The Tribune bankruptcy adds another layer of financial anxiety.  Nineteen years of my father’s pension – from seven years at the L.A. Times and twelve at the Baltimore Sun – are now tied up in Chapter 11.

Something has to change.  No matter how hard or well reporters work, there simply isn’t enough money to support them anymore.  Truth-seeking (for better or worse) has never been a for-profit activity.  Newspapers have just been lucky in that they found a way to subsidize this high-cost endeavor – classified ads.  That subsidy is fast disappearing with the Internet in general and craigslist in particular.  If we as a country want to continue having a written representative in the “fourth branch” of government, we’re going to have to come up with another one.  The fifty cents or so we pay for a printed paper isn’t enough to pay for things like foreign bureaus or investigative reporting.  (Expenses like these are why blogging is no substitute.)  And of course, these days many people read the paper on the web and don’t even pay that fifty cents anymore.  (My dad jokingly lays the blame on me and my online reading habits in his column about the Rocky going up for sale.)

Those of us who write for this blog talk a lot about families who work hard, play by the rules, and still find themselves in trouble.  But until recently I’ve had the luxury of not thinking about my own family in this light.  I don’t want to exaggerate.  My dad will land on his feet; he always has.  But it’s excruciating that he’s facing a layoff less than six months before his sixtieth birthday.  This is someone who’s worked his way up from the lowest echelons journalism, covering high-school basketball games when he himself was still in high school, to the very top of his profession.  (Not that I’m biased.)  My dad believes that he will be one of the last people to turn out the lights in the newsroom.  I just hope the newsroom has more than five years of light left.
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Comments

I'm a longtime print journalist, too, and an avid reader of newspapers. I read papers online sometimes but I still prefer the paper version of the news. I'm sad about what's happening to the papers, including the one I read, The Boston Globe.

I've been most interested in the pension and other retirement benefits question for former and current employees over the past several hours since the filing. Benefits for folks like your dad seem to be safe, as I've just suggested in a post: http://ucclaw.blogspot.com/2008/12/gm-chrysler-tribune-creditors-go-to.html It's sad to see fine journalism falling victim to rapacious private equity LBOs. Best of luck to your dad and the other fine employees of these papers--I believe and hope that the papers owned by the Tribune Company can make it through these tough times.

Hey Folks:

See my post from Monday on this topic. Newspapers serve an important role that bloggers simply cannot replace. Something has to replace classifieds. Nothing can replace newspapers and their investigative reporters. I hope your dad makes it. http://www.mediapost.com/publications/?fa=Articles.san&art_aid=96229#comments

Dave

The Tribune's problem isn't the newspaper business, it's aggressive financial engineering that saddled it with impossible debt.

EMERGENCY LEGISLATION to allow Bankruptcy Judges the Authority and the right to modify and provide a principal reduction on PRIMARY HOMES. This seems to be a real solution to the mortgage mess and if congress changes the Bankruptcy Code millions of homeowners will soon be able to modify their mortgages with substantial principal reductions without being at the mercy of their lender’s discretion. Since a change in bankruptcy laws in chapters 7 and 13 cases are the equivalent of Federal Court Orders, there is nothing the lender can do to prevent such modification, and must accept the new loan terms. IMHO


I too, am a Boston Globe reader, and am sad to see the condition of the paper, in quality and size. I also read many newspaper articles online. I think the important word in that sentence is 'articles'. I have found that I will search out and read articles of interest in online editions of papers local to a given story. For example, I went to the Minneapolis Star Tribune for stories about the Franken - Coleman Senatorial race. What I have found, after some 14 years of doing this is that I read articles online, but I read 'the paper' by having the print edition in my hands. Online, I get no sense of the news being presented by the editors. All I get is a scattered piece here or there, and I have to search it out. It isn't presented to me the way a print copy does. It's a little like the tale of two blind men describing an elephant. One man grabs its leg and describes it as thick like a tree, while another its trunk and says it's like a snake. Of course, it's both, and much more, but they don't know because their perception is limited. The same holds true for an online paper. If all you see, because of your narrow field of vision, is a single article, you get a limited impression of the environment the paper is written in, and about, whereas in a print edition, you see that article, and much more that you weren't looking for, giving you a broader view of the paper's environment that day.

«Those of us who write for this blog talk a lot about families who work hard, play by the rules, and still find themselves in trouble.» Real Americans know that the above is the definition of LOSER. Newt Gingrich knows how WINNER is defined: http://classwebs.SPEA.Indiana.edu/bakerr/v600/a_new_look_at_environmental_poli.htm «If you have a society where almost every middle class person routinely fudges the law, that's telling us something. We have laws that matter-murder, rape, and we have laws that don't matter. [ ... ] The first thing that every good American says each morning is "What's the angle?" "How can I get around it?" "What does my lawyer think?" "There must be a loophole!" Then he proceeds to work the angle, and the bureaucracy spends its time chasing that and writing new regs to stop him. America is the most incentive-driven society on the planet.»

I think that there will come a time in the near future where newsrooms (I hesitate to say newspapers because I fear that the paper / print version may go the way of the dinosaurs) are rejuvenated by the simple fact that even in the age of the internet, content is still king. Great investigative journalism will continue to be rewarded with readers. Reporters and newsrooms now have the chance to have their stories read by the entire world rather than the limited geographic distribution of their print paper.

The business model of home delivery and classified ads may be broken - but I've never enjoyed thumbing through the classified ads in the newspaper and my experiences with home delivery of newspapers have been less than satisfactory. Newspapers will adapt to the internet and a new model, just as the investment banks will adapt to life after the mortgage backed securities phenomenon.

It's just unfortunate that there has has to be such a great human toll to the conversion.

Here in Chicago (corner of Madison and Clark) they have not refilled the newspaper boxes (put in a coin, open the door, take a paper) with NY Times and WSJ. They still have the Dec. 18 editions of both in the boxes, which explains a lot.

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