Monday, July 25, 2011

Daily Newspapers - Last Call

Less than a week ago the Chicago Sun-Times announced that it would close the Ashland Avenue production facility that it built just twelve years ago, having reached an agreement with its bitter rival the Chicago Tribune to begin printing both it and the Chicago suburban newspapers that it owns. To put this announcement in perspective (and as someone who grew up in the middle of this competition and worked with both papers in Chicago), let me say that this would be comparable to Democrats announcing that Republicans would now be issuing all public policy statements on behalf of their party. They might as well have announced that they had cancer, that it was untreatable, and that it was terminal. We of us who have been around the daily newspaper business (though I am no longer) have known for some time that the business model that most have used was no longer a valid one. 

Unfortunately, like so many other businesses (and people) they spent more time wishing for a return of the "Good Old Days" than seeking a path forward. When advertising chose to leave ROP and went to stand alone inserts instead (for those who haven't heard this term before, it stands for 'Ripped on Page' and means advertising actually printed in the newspaper), newspapers resisted such change and placed obstacles in the path of those who were trying to find a way to give them revenue. When the Internet began to encroach on their turf, they wrote it off as a fad. When blogs and news pages became an alternative for younger readers (and older ones as well), they denigrated them as unprofessional and unworthy. 

When they finally woke up and began to embrace this new technology, they couldn't find a way to produce a user-friendly product or generate revenue from it. When they finally realized their past mistakes and began to put 'paywalls' up on their websites to rectify past errors, they found that like their television counterparts they had become largely irrelevant and little more than a supporting cast member. 

Oh some are still surviving like USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, but the far greater number are suffering under staggering revenue losses, staffing cuts, and a loss of credibility. For this last (and perhaps most telling) situation they once again have no one to blame but themselves. Daily newspapers have so far confused objective reporting with editorializing that they can no longer tell the difference themselves. Seldom, if you read carefully, can you find a story in one that does not inject the reporter's point of view into what is ostensibly a straight news story. And while it's bad enough that reporters are so busy trying to become columnists that they are already playing the part, the fact that their editors are no longer 'editing' these stories to correct the errors in perspective is an even more egregious offense. 

Now perhaps this has always been the case, and it's only now in the explosion of news sources available to the public that the bias is being revealed. Perhaps those of us who are still 'news junkies' have become more sensitized to the situation, and more critical. Perhaps 'The Fourth Estate' is returning to its 'Yellow Journalism' roots. Certainly newspapers here in colonial days were often little more than mouthpieces for political ideology. Newspapers in Europe in the same period was certainly no stranger to telling stories from the point of view of the ruling government. 

This time however, the chickens have finally coming home to roost. Daily newspapers may no longer be looking at a the beginning of the end, but at the middle of it. Some of these organizations may survive in some form, in the same way that land-line telephones are disappearing while cell phone use is growing, but their days of preeminence are now past. 

In truth, the best hope for such products are the weekly newspapers, since they focus on the local stories, the personal perspectives, and the contributions of local talent. Though their model will too change eventually, they are neither burdened by an inflated sense of their own worth, nor do these 'free' newspapers fail to understand that they survive only by the grace of advertising dollars and only as long as they serve their audience and advertisers. With what's now going on in Chicago, we may at last be seeing the "Last Call" for the daily newspaper as we know it today. The lights have been turned on and the patrons are moving to the door. As those of us who have unfortunately experienced this time in the wee hours of the morning have heard the barman say,

"You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here any more".

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