Sunday, June 14, 2009

Why newspapers are falling over - and why we still need them

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 10.)

A great deal has been said and written lately about the crisis in journalism.

In the United States, newspapers that have served their cities for nearly 150 years – papers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Arizona’s Tucson Citizen – have either fallen over or are now available only online.

In Boston the Christian Science Monitor, a paper once respected internationally, published its last daily print edition in March rather than face continuing annual losses of $19 million. It too is now available only online or as a weekly.

Other papers, awash in red ink, are either teetering on the brink of bankruptcy or are up for sale. These include famous titles such as the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Miami Herald. Even the formidable Los Angeles Times is floundering. It’s estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 journalists’ jobs are being lost in the US every year – a staggering number.

Things are only marginally better in Britain, where newspapers are ruthlessly cutting back newsroom staff in an attempt to counter continuing circulation losses and declines in advertising revenue.

The crisis can’t be put down to any one cause. Newspaper sales have been eroded because many people who once read newspapers now get the information they want online. Advertising, the source of the so-called “rivers of gold” that made the industry profitable for so long, has migrated to the Internet too. To all that you can add the severe effects of the global recession. It's what you might call,to use a vogue-ish phrase, a perfect storm.

An additional factor is that many famous newspapers formerly owned by old family dynasties, steeped in the newspaper business over several generations, have passed into the hands of corporate owners who display little long-term commitment to the industry and still less to journalistic values. To them, it’s just another business.

Intent on maximising profit, the new breed of proprietors have slashed costs and shed staff. Inevitably, their papers have suffered.

It’s a vicious circle: profits fall, so the owners cut staff numbers and close branch offices or overseas bureaus to save money. The paper’s quality then slips, so fewer people buy it. Advertisers note the declining circulation figures and take their business elsewhere. Thus profit continues to decline, to which the company’s response is to … cut costs by getting rid of more staff. And on it goes in a downward spiral.

In the US, some newspaper companies compounded their problems by greedily acquiring other titles, using borrowed money, and are now struggling under a massive debt burden.

It all adds up to what American journalism professor Robert McChesney, in a recent interview on Radio New Zealand, called a collapse of journalism. He’s not the only one expressing alarm. Veteran television talk show host Larry King recently remarked that the saddest thing about the revolution in communications was the decline of newspapers.

Mercifully, things are not so bad in New Zealand. As is often the case, we seem to be insulated from the worst effects of global events.

That’s not to say things are hunky-dory. Some of the overseas trends have been mirrored here. A new type of corporate proprietor is in charge of our big two newspaper chains. They are anxious to keep shareholders happy and seem less prepared than the old guard to weather cyclical downturns.

Newspaper production has been rationalised wherever possible. Papers that previously used their own on-site presses now print in other cities, which saves costs but forces the papers to bring forward their news deadlines and thus severely compromises their ability to compete with the immediacy of other media.

Some papers have laid off journalists and both major chains have centralised their sub-editing, which means that a local story written by a reporter on a paper in Wanganui is likely to be edited by someone sitting in Auckland.

But for all that, New Zealand newspaper circulations seem to be holding up reasonably well compared with the collapses occurring overseas. Figures show newspaper readership, as distinct from circulation (which means copies sold), is actually increasing. Generally the picture is one of gradual but not catastrophic declines in circulation, though the trend is by no means uniform across the whole industry.

Should ordinary people – by whom I mean those not directly involved in the newspaper business – be concerned about any of this? I think they should. The crisis in journalism is a crisis for democracy as well.

Democracy depends on good journalism to function properly, because without it people can’t make informed decisions. And no matter what champions of the Internet may say, journalism still means newspapers.

The Net may be a great forum for robust debate – or, as another visiting American journalism academic recently characterised it, “verbal food fights” – but it’s no substitute for solid journalism based on fact and research-based reportage. The Net has yet to usurp newspapers’ role in informing people about what’s going on in government and in their communities. Often it merely panders to people's existing prejudices, since Net users tend to gravitate toward websites and blogs that reflect their own world view. That's an often overlooked virtue of the independent newspaper: it presents people with views and opinions that challenge their own.

The importance of newspapers is nowhere more noticeable than at the local level, where the Net has hardly made any inroads, probably because local content is not seen as sufficiently “sexy” or exciting.

My wife and I recently spent several weeks travelling in the United States, and whenever I got the opportunity I read the local paper. It’s a quick way to learn about whatever place you’re visiting, because a good local paper tells you a lot about the community it serves. But I was also reminded how important they are.

The Net has yet to colonise the space occupied by these local papers, which cover everything from local politics to high school sport. Within their pages you can read obituaries of local identities, reviews of amateur drama productions and vigorous debate on local issues in letters and opinion columns.

Not only are these papers a type of social glue, binding communities together by keeping them informed on matters of common interest, but they are also where democracy starts. The playwright Arthur Miller perceptively described a good newspaper as a nation talking to itself, and it’s in local newspapers, even more than in the famous big-city titles, that you see this conversation taking place.

It may sound folksy and old-fashioned, but there’s something unifying about everyone sitting at home reading community news and comment in the local paper. It’s a powerful social dynamic that we should all hope survives the onslaught of the digital revolution.


Marty said...

My goodness Karl, congratulations on your conversion to the bright side of the road.
You do know Professor McChesney is one of those leftists who you were attacking just a few short days ago.

And, can I assume from this erudite and thoughtful post that you've abandoned the "free market of ideas" approach?

Otherwise your analysis doesn't make sense.


Karl du Fresne said...

Well, I’ve re-read my piece, and for the life of me I can’t see how anyone could interpret it as inconsistent with the notion of a free market of ideas. Mind you, I learned long ago that you can control only what you write; you can’t control the bizarre meanings some people choose to take from it.

As for McChesney, even leftists sometimes get some things right, and I didn’t find too much to disagree with in his analysis of the state of American newspapers. But that doesn’t exactly amount to a ringing endorsement of whatever other beliefs McChesney might hold. Sorry to disappoint you.

Karl du Fresne said...

P.S. No, I didn't know McChesney was a leftist, but I assumed as much. I have yet to hear of a professor of journalism who isn't.

Anonymous said...

Karl, you're showing a humorous side too.
My point is that it's actually the market failure that we're experiencing that's got newspapers into so much trouble. What you correctly identify as the "greed" of corporate owners.

I've met a conservative libertarian journalism educator, John C. Merrill.
He wrote a fabulous book called "The Dialectic of [in?] Journalism.
He retired a couple of years ago from the Missouri School of Journalism.
You need to get out more. There's plenty of journalism educators who are not leftist.

Ayrdale said...

Newspapers and news magazines are failing for several reasons, all taken together they will achieve a knock out blow.

The first reason is I think, a failure to be topical; nothing can really be done about that.
The second, and most important reason for me is that the established press, particularly weekly news magazines, ie Time, Newsweek (and the departed US News and World Report) treat the opinions of me, and people who think like me with disdain.
Those magazines, and most of our newspapers have in the main accepted the left liberal politically correct views on immigration, climate change, conservative family values (including sex education) and law and order. (A notable exception is the recently rejuvenated Listener to which I now subscribe.)

Why should I, and people who think like me, continue reading papers and magazines that insist that my world view is wrong ?