Newspapers…and After?

Newspapers…and After?

Newspapers may be dinosaurs in the age of new media, but they have enough life to guide–and even define–our politics.


As the November 7 election approached, Jon Tester was getting hit with the full force of Karl Rove’s still considerable arsenal. The White House political czar had decided that the way to maintain Republican control of the Senate was to concentrate GOP resources on traditionally “red” states like Montana, where Tester, an organic farmer and state senator, was mounting a populist campaign against scandal-plagued Republican incumbent Conrad Burns. The airwaves filled with attack ads that savaged the Democrat for criticizing the Patriot Act and declared, “Tester is backed by radicals.” Former Department of Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge described Tester’s championship of civil liberties as “unfathomable, almost inexplicable.” Vice President Cheney arrived to paint the Burns-Tester race as a test of “whether this government will remain strong and resolute on the war on terror or falls into confusion, doubts and indecision.” President Bush, who carried Montana by twenty points in 2004, showed up to close the deal, as some pundits began to predict a Burns comeback.

Tester, a darling of liberal bloggers, was not going to be saved by flaming posts now. He needed a trusted Montana voice, or better yet a chorus of voices, to come to his defense. As election day approached, he got it. The daily newspapers of the Big Sky State came out, one after another, with endorsements of the challenger. Conrad Burns may have had the President and the Vice President singing his praises, but the Helena Independent Record, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the Great Falls Tribune, the Montana Standard and the Billings Gazette were telling Montana voters that Jon Tester was one of their own, and that he belonged in the Senate. The Tester camp scrambled on the last Sunday of the campaign to get the word out, sending e-mails that urged supporters to print out a hastily assembled leaflet highlighting the endorsements to pass along to friends, slip under doors and post on grocery store bulletin boards.

Two days later, Tester bested Burns by about 2,800 votes. How did Tester beat back the full-court press of the Bush White House? Before the election, a local conservative commentator had tried to argue that the newspaper endorsements were no more influential than “visits of luminaries or stars or political mucky-mucks coming in from the national scene,” while a prince of the blogosphere, Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, had posted his prediction that the hometown endorsements would still carry weight in Montana. Daily Kos was right. When the votes were counted, it could fairly be argued–and indeed it was–that endorsements from local papers had tipped the seat to Tester and the Senate to the Democrats.

Newspapers may be the dinosaurs of America’s new-media age, hulking behemoths that cost too much to prepare and distribute and that cannot seem to attract young–or even middle-aged–readers in the numbers needed to survive. They may well have entered the death spiral that Philip Meyer, in his recent book The Vanishing Newspaper, predicts will conclude one day in 2043 as the last reader throws aside the final copy of a newspaper. But, as the Tester win illustrates, the dinosaurs still have enough life in them to guide–and perhaps even define–our politics.

Especially at the local and state levels, where the fundamental fights for control of a nation less red and blue than complexly purple play out, daily newspapers remain essential arbiters of what passes for news and what Americans think about it. For all the talk about television’s dominant role in campaigns (less and less because of its importance as a source of news for most Americans, more and more because of campaign commercials) and all the new attention to the Internet, newspapers for the most part continue to establish the parameters of what gets covered and how. Moreover, neither broadcast nor digital media have developed the reporting infrastructure or the level of credibility that newspapers enjoy. So candidates for the House, the Senate and even the White House still troop into old gray buildings in Denver and Omaha, Louisville and Boston, Concord and Des Moines in search of a forum where they can talk with reporters and editors about issues and where those conversations will, they hope, be distilled into articles and editorials that set so much of the agenda for the political debate at the local, state and national levels.

Thus, while George W. Bush may say he rarely reads newspapers, he sat down in 2000 and 2004 to talk with individual newspaper publishers and editors in hopes of winning the support of publications in such battleground states as Pennsylvania and Ohio. So did Al Gore and John Kerry. And Illinois Senator Barack Obama, a newspaper junkie, is busily making the rounds as he ponders a bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. The attention on news pages and support on editorial pages that newspapers can provide is even more important for candidates trying to elbow their way into the competition by raising new issues.

Former Senator John Edwards learned this three years ago, after a Des Moines Register endorsement focused on his ideas about the disturbing development of “two Americas” and ignited his campaign in Iowa’s Democratic presidential caucuses. “We were talking about issues, such as poverty, that didn’t necessarily lend themselves to soundbites,” explained Edwards, who said his campaign, which eventually finished a solid second in the caucuses, experienced a “massive upsurge” after receiving the endorsement. “When a newspaper that people know says, ‘Hey, people should be paying attention to what this guy is saying,’ it makes a huge difference.”

And it’s not only in the heat of a campaign that newspapers help set the agenda. Consider, for example, the Chicago Tribune‘s relentless focus on the injustice of the death penalty, which led a Republican governor to declare a moratorium on executions in Illinois six years ago and, ultimately, to clear death row. Ground-breaking revelations regarding the disputed 2000 presidential election in Florida were uncovered by the Orlando Sentinel and the St. Petersburg Times. And while there is no question that bloggers raised the alarm about Diebold’s dubious voting machines before the 2004 election, newspapers were dramatically more aggressive in picking up on concerns about paperless ballots and election abuses than TV networks or local stations during the 2006 campaign.

This is not to suggest that most newspapers do their journalism as well or as wisely as they should, nor that the role of newspapers is still as vital as it was in the 1950s, when President Dwight Eisenhower, worried about the financial difficulties of the New York Herald Tribune, personally wrote millionaire John Hay Whitney and urged him to take charge of the publication because, he argued, it had a “great and valuable function to perform for the future of America.” But newspapers remain necessary, at least for now. Unfortunately, necessity does not translate to the sort of profits that contemporary newspaper owners demand–nor to any assurance of the long-term survival of journalism as we know and need it.

Crises like that of the Herald Tribune a half-century ago are now the norm rather than the exception. The newspaper industry is in trouble. Big trouble. In 1950 newspapers in the United States had a weekday circulation of 54 million. The circulation figures are roughly the same today, but the number of households has more than doubled. The Los Angeles Times‘s daily circulation was down 8 percent in a single six-month period in 2006, while the Philadelphia Inquirer was down 7.5 percent, the Boston Globe 6.7 percent, the New York Times 3.5 percent and the Washington Post 3.3 percent.

With drops in circulation have come declines in revenues–not because subscriptions provide all that much money but because media companies collect money from advertisers based on the number of homes they reach. Big advertisers long ago began shifting from the printed page to television, but now classified advertising, the meat-and-potatoes of local and regional daily newspapers, has begun migrating at dramatic speed to websites like craigslist.

What’s happening is not just a temporary downturn. From 1990, when newspaper circulation peaked at 62.3 million, readership has been in steady decline. That might lead some to the casual conclusion that the Internet is the problem. But as veteran journalist and media writer Ben Compaine explains, “The heyday of newspapers was in the late nineteenth century, as expanding literacy combined with the development of the steam-driven rotary press, a market economy and wood pulp-based newsprint to make the mass-circulation penny press possible. From the mid-1800s to the 1920s, newspapers were the only mass-circulation daily news and information medium in the media barnyard. That changed with radio. It accelerated with television. The Internet is just the latest information technology that has added to the choices that consumers and advertisers have for obtaining and creating information.” All true, but there is powerful evidence that the breaking point for newspapers may finally be coming.

Individual owners and powerful families–who often, though by no means always, settled for reasonable profits in return for the ego boost that went with putting out a quality newspaper–are exiting the stage. Increasingly newspapers are owned by the shareholders of national chains, who do not even know–let alone care about–the names of the papers from which they demand profit margins that are generally twice the average for other industries. Where a local family might have grudgingly accepted a weak quarter and a downturn in revenues, shareholders greet any softness on the bottom line with demands for draconian cuts. If a paper’s current managers are unwilling to make them, investors look for more ruthless managers. Investors forced the breakup and sale, in 2006, of the venerable Knight Ridder chain, which owned Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers like the Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Jose Mercury News and the Miami Herald. Similar pressures have forced the Tribune Company, which publishes the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Hartford Courant and several Florida dailies, to put itself on the block.

In recent months, Morgan Stanley has been pressuring the New York Times Company to alter its voting structure to reduce the influence of the Sulzberger family, which has opted for reasonably high–if often imperfect–journalistic standards over unreasonably high profits. The company’s “current corporate governance practices deviate from what is widely considered to be best practice,” explained Morgan Stanley Investment Management, owner of almost 8 percent of the Times stock, in asking shareholders to vote at this April’s annual meeting in favor of its plan. The Sulzbergers shot back with a statement that the family “has no intention of opening our doors to the kind of action that is tearing at the heart of some of the other great journalistic institutions in our country.” But the bosses at Knight Ridder once said much the same thing, and even if the Sulzbergers do manage to maintain one major newspaper in something like its current form, their statement is an acknowledgment that the broader trends are in the wrong direction.

How wrong? Under apparent pressure from Wall Street, the McClatchy chain just sold off what would normally have been a crown jewel among its holdings, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, at a rock-bottom price–less than half the $1.2 billion it paid for the largest paper in Minnesota eight years ago. “It was a drag on the bottom line, and we felt we would do better without it,” declared McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt. The new owner, a private-equity firm that owns no other newspapers, is not expected to raise journalistic standards–even if the new overseers claim they’ll maintain the Star Tribune as the great regional daily it has been for decades. “These buyers aren’t in it for the love of journalism, or even for the influence that you get by buying a local paper,” argues John Morton, dean of newspaper ownership analysts. “They are in it to make a profit by flipping the paper in five or six years, and the way to do that usually involves a lot of cutting in the meantime.”

The Times, the Star Tribune and other great newspapers are not going to collapse soon. But their circumstances are evidence of the rapid, and often dire, changes transforming American newspapering into something less than it has been. Owners are moving to satisfy investors by slashing newsroom staff, pressuring unions to accept cuts, dumbing down coverage of important issues, eliminating statehouse, Washington and foreign bureaus (even the Wall Street Journal is getting into the act, with the recent shuttering of its Canada bureau) and generally sucking the life out of what were once considered public trusts–or by selling out to firms that will do the same thing.

The result has been a hemorrhaging of journalism jobs, as reporters and editors join manufacturing workers in the ranks of “disposable Americans.” More than 44,000 news industry employees, at least 34,000 of them newspaper journalists, have lost their jobs over the past five years. Roughly 200 jobs have been cut at the Chicago Tribune over the past year. The Akron Beacon Journal, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Ohio daily that once set the standard in the state for investigative journalism, has slashed newsroom jobs by 25 percent. The San Jose Mercury News is in the process of shedding 17 percent of its newsroom positions. And deep cuts are being implemented in Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Paul, Philadelphia and dozens of smaller cities where traditional beats–labor, farm, federal courts–are disappearing as retiring reporters are not replaced.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s current report on “The State of the News Media” notes, “In some cities, the numbers alone tell the story. There are roughly half as many reporters covering metropolitan Philadelphia, for instance, as in 1980. The number of newspaper reporters there has fallen from 500 to 220. The pattern at the suburban papers around the city has been similar, though not as extreme. The local TV stations, with the exception of Fox, have cut back on traditional news coverage. The five AM radio stations that used to cover news have been reduced to two. As recently as 1990, the Philadelphia Inquirer had 46 reporters covering the city. Today it has 24.”

What that translates to is this: If we assume that Inquirer reporters work normal schedules, there are substantial portions of any given week when fewer than five journalists provide the primary coverage for a city of 1.4 million people. Major news stories are going untold. Vast stretches of a metropolis are being neglected. And the reporter-to-population ratio will soon worsen, as plans are implemented to cut up to 17 percent of remaining editorial jobs. More significant, as Ed Herman, professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and an expert not just on the media but on Philadelphia, told me last year, the sense of civic connection that should be nurtured by a great newspaper is instead fraying. “Newspapers were once thought to bring communities together. That’s not the case anymore,” he said, explaining, “People aren’t stupid. They recognize when their local newspaper loses interest in them as anything but consumers of advertisements.”

It is the recognition of what is being lost that has inspired journalists to begin speaking up and getting active in ways that have not been seen since media unions began to organize in the 1930s. The Newspaper Guild and its parent union, the Communications Workers of America, organized a Day of Action on December 11 to draw attention to the fact that cuts, often seen only in isolation, add up to a crisis not just for journalism but for the political and governmental processes of the nation. “That’s why we’re asking the public to join us–for democracy’s sake–to say no to cutting the jobs of journalists and all workers whose work supports good journalism,” explained Guild president Linda Foley.

Syndicated columnist Molly Ivins puts it best when she says that newspapers aren’t dying but committing suicide. “What really pisses me off,” she told the journal of the newspaper industry, Editor & Publisher, is “this most remarkable business plan: Newspaper owners look at one another and say, ‘Our rate of return is slipping a bit; let’s solve that problem by making our product smaller and less helpful and less interesting.'” If there has been a model of American newspaper innovation in the past three decades, it’s this: Never do something bold, edgy or intelligent when there is a predictable and useless gimmick into which energy and resources can be dumped for a few years.

At the same time, newspaper owners have poured resources into lobbying for federal policy shifts that would allow them to merge with competitors and create one-newsroom towns. The Newspaper Association of America and industry lobbyists have been pushing for years for the elimination of the Federal Communications Commission’s newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban, which prohibits ownership by a single firm of a newspaper and television and radio stations in the same market. Newspaper owners argue that with the ban lifted, they could cut costs by having the same journalists produce online and print reports and appear on company-owned radio and TV news programs. In the few cities where the cross-ownership model has been tried, however, there is no evidence to suggest that it produces better journalism or a more informed public. Instead it makes the few remaining reporters busier, leaving them with less time for what Washington Post veteran and Pulitzer Prize-winner David Maraniss says is the most important work of journalism: thinking.

Left to their own devices, the current owners of American newspapers are indeed likely to consummate the suicide pact they have entered into with their investors. That should scare the hell out of Americans who recognize that Jefferson was right when he said that good journalism is essential to democracy. It should also get citizens asking the right questions: If newspapers really are fading away, what comes next? And in this period of transition, how do we assure that the vital role that newspapers still play is not lost? As sad as the end of newspapers might be for someone like me, who began writing at age 11 for the weekly newspaper in my Wisconsin hometown, the important question for the great mass of Americans is not, How do we save newspapers? It’s, How do we still get a healthy mix of reported news and analysis from a variety of at least reasonably reliable sources?

Local television stations, identified by a majority of citizens as their primary source of news about civic life, are actually covering less political news than they did a decade ago. A new survey of the coverage of the 2006 election season, conducted by University of Wisconsin researchers, established that “local television news viewers got considerably more information about campaigns from paid political advertisements than from actual news coverage.” The survey also said that “Local newscasts in seven Midwest markets aired four minutes, 24 seconds of paid political ads during the typical 30-minute broadcast [before the election] while dedicating an average of one minute, 43 seconds to election news coverage.”

The Internet certainly devotes more attention to politics. But, for the most part, the information discussed is still gathered by newspaper reporters, and while a few high-profile journalists have begun to migrate from old-fashioned newsrooms to the blogosphere, they tend to arrive as commentators rather than gatherers of news. The web has yet to emerge as a distinct journalistic force–let alone one that speaks with the authority at the local, state or regional level of a traditional daily newspaper. While the web may someday be home to sites that generate the revenues needed to pay reporters and editors to produce meaningful journalism, that day has yet to arrive in any real sense.

“What is really frightening is that newspapers appear to be dying so quickly that they may disappear, or at least disappear as a serious part of our lives, before we have a replacement for them. That’s a grave danger to democracy,” says Maraniss. “As flawed as journalism as practiced by newspapers is, we don’t have another vehicle for journalism that picks up where newspapers leave off. That’s what we should be worried about. Maybe newspapers can be replaced, probably newspapers can be replaced. But journalism can’t be replaced–not if we’re going to function as any kind of democracy.”

European and Asian media owners have been a good deal more creative and aggressive in their response to the changing circumstances of newspapers. And in many cases, though certainly not all, they have been more successful than their American counterparts in maintaining the popular appeal of print publications. European publishers have, for instance, been far more willing to invest in radical redesigns of papers and new printing and distribution systems. And they have long recognized something that is close to unimaginable to those who guide American newspapering: that taking strong front-page stands on issues such as the genetic modification of food and global warming–becoming what the British refer to as a “campaigning newspaper”–does not inspire charges of bias but instead draws readers to groundbreaking journalism.

While the Chicago Tribune surely gets high marks for its attention to the death penalty issue, newspapers like Britain’s Independent embark on dozens of campaigns in the course of a year–even going so far as to give their front pages over to promotions of rallies and protest marches against everything from poverty in Africa to the war in Iraq. But it’s not just that European publishers are more engaged and adventurous. European citizens and their governments have a tradition of taking seriously the role newspaper journalism plays in building a civil and democratic society.

In Norway, Sweden and Finland, where Internet use is high and strong public broadcasting systems provide sound radio and TV alternatives, newspapers are in a dramatically better position than in the United States–in part because of longstanding government commitments to encourage competition, diversity and quality. In Norway, for instance, the Media Authority, an administrative body within the country’s cultural affairs ministry, uses public subsidies to encourage the development of local newspapers that compete with bigger established papers. The program promotes the development of newspapers in sparsely populated regions and helps sustain publications that may have an ideological following but are not necessarily popular with advertisers. The system is strictly controlled to avoid government censorship or pressures on publishers–in fact, the joke goes that the best way to get government assistance is to start an opposition newspaper. Even large newspapers that have little or no need for the subsidies are influenced by the system, as they find themselves in competition with papers that push the journalistic envelope. The basic requirements to qualify for subsidies provide encouragement to newspapers to invest in journalism. At the same time, key subsidies are not available to newspapers owned by companies that pay stock dividends–a restriction that prevents investors from cashing in on the public largesse.

One byproduct of the Scandinavian commitment to newspapers, especially in Norway, has been the development of some of the finest news-oriented Internet sites in the world. If newspapers do eventually slide out of existence, the strength of these websites offers encouraging evidence that journalism will survive. Norway’s Schibsted newspaper firm now earns 35 percent of its operating profits from Internet ventures that have built on the reputation of its newspapers to develop the most-visited news websites in Scandinavia. Another Scandinavian publishing house, Orkla Media, owns what is frequently referred to as one of the world’s most successful web-only newspapers, Germany’s Netzeitung. “It’s not a blog, a search engine or an aggregator,” explains web journalism consultant Jeff Jarvis in an enthusiastic review of the initiative. “It is a newspaper without the paper, but with 60 journalists reporting the news. Netzeitung has not only survived the Internet bubble and a ping-pong game of corporate sales, it has acquired other media properties; it is starting an ambitious effort in networked journalism with citizen reporters; and it is set to be profitable [in the near term].”

The point here is not to portray subsidy programs as a panacea. While they seem to have worked well in Norway and a few other countries, their track record in countries like Italy is decidedly more mixed. The lesson from the rest of the world isn’t that the United States ought to set up a particular program of subsidies–or borrow any other individual idea. It’s that government can in the right circumstances and with the right intentions play a useful role in stabilizing the fortunes of newspapers and in encouraging investments in serious journalism. For instance, allowing Americans to deduct the price of an annual newspaper subscription from their taxes would boost circulation while creating the potential for papers to be less reliant on advertising revenue, and thus less vulnerable to pressures from advertisers. However, even this innovative approach runs the risk, if it were embarked upon in isolation, of reinforcing the bad habits of US media owners.

What America needs are new and better models of newspaper ownership. Instead of letting the FCC open the way for chain newspapers to establish local monopolies by eliminating the ban on cross-ownership, Congress should concern itself with re-establishing competition and innovation by encouraging the breakup of chains and the sale of big-city dailies to local owners who value the role a great newspaper can play in a community. Much has been made of the interest expressed by wealthy newspaper fans like entertainment mogul David Geffen, former supermarket magnate Ron Burkle and former home builder Eli Broad in buying the Los Angeles Times. Broad, a critic of chain ownership who suggests that distant owners of local newspapers ill-serve the communities in which they publish, explains, “I believe a newspaper is a civic asset, a civic trust. I see a role for foundations that are not totally bottom-line oriented somehow being involved in the newspaper industry and/or civic-minded families or others.”

Broad’s line of reasoning should be encouraged. But the most important aspect of his vision is that reference to “others” who might own newspapers. Civic-minded families may well have a better record of running newspapers than distant investors, but there aren’t enough wealthy philanthropists to go around, and besides, they aren’t all “civic minded.” Foundations and trusts, which control a handful of American newspapers, present a more interesting prospect. While the experience is limited, foundation-controlled newspapers such as the St. Petersburg Times do, for the most part, have better journalistic reputations than their competitors. Congress should concern itself particularly with developing policies that would make it easier–through shifts in approaches to taxation, postal subsidies and the often-abused “joint operating agreements” established in a number of larger cities to help maintain competition–for newspaper employees, unions and even community coalitions to buy, and perhaps even start, newspapers.

Representative Maurice Hinchey, the New York Democrat who chairs the Congressional Future of American Media Caucus, has the right idea when he says Congress should seek to assure that the American people “have easy access to vast sources of news so that they can be well-informed with a diverse mix of reporting and opinion.” That may sound like a broad goal, but it’s the right organizing principle. No matter what the fate of newspapers, developing new models for ownership of institutions that gather, analyze, comment upon and then distribute the news–be they newspapers, television stations, radio stations, websites or whatever the product of the next great technological leap–is essential to making sure that journalism survives and thrives.

Much of the current media landscape would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago. Much of what will be is equally unimaginable. What is necessary now is a determination to insure that the media of the future deliver not merely for owners but for workers, news consumers and democracy. Perhaps newspapers really can survive in a form familiar to those of us who cherish them. But even if that is not to be, they must survive in a form that fosters a healthy transition from old media to new, and that preserves and, one hopes, improves journalism. The transition need not be tidy. It should embody the experimentation, adventurousness and glorious failures that our current crop of risk-averse publishers have shunned.

Above all, the debate about the future of newspapers should not be ceded to the investment-driven corporations that have failed so miserably to maintain media that sustain both themselves and democracy. Americans who recognize that newspapers remain, at least for the time being, essential generators of journalism, and that the serious-minded gathering and analysis of news is still necessary for an informed and engaged citizenry, must join reporters and editors in the struggle to assure that even if newspapers do not survive forever, journalism will.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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