"It’s time to stop the presses" at daily newspapers, and turn them into online-only publications – that’s what former L.A. Times staffer Rick Wartzman says. Writing in Business Week this week, he says it’s the only way to preserve the mission of journalists everywhere: report the facts on what the powerful are doing, and what’s happening to the rest of us, and do it with the skill, professionalism and ethics often missing in the blogosphere. We need journalists, he says, but we don’t need newsprint.
Wartzman is not some teenage blogger. He’s worked in the heart of print journalism: he’s the former Business Editor at the L.A. Times, and for a while he edited the paper’s West magazine. Before that he worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. (He’s also written a couple of terrific nonfiction books.) He took the Times buyout recently and now is director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University. He’s not an enthusiast for reading the news on the web; he calls himself "a guy who loves to go out and pick up the three newspapers that land on my front lawn every morning."
But he calls the end of daily newsprint "inescapable" – an economic necessity. The alternative, he says, is simple: daily newspapers will go broke and disappear completely. Denver’s Rocky Mountain News has already stopped publishing. The LA Times is owned by The Tribune company, headed by the evil Sam Zell (so much for journalistic "neutrality" online), which is in bankruptcy. Also in bankruptcy: the owners of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The Hearst Corp. will probably close the San Francisco Chronicle sometime soon.
But if newspapers can’t survive on newsprint, could they really stay alive, and possibly even thrive, as online-only operations? Wartzman worked out the economics with the current editor of the LA Times, Russ Stanton. "Based on its current level of online ad revenue," Wartzman writes, "the L.A. Times could support a staff of about 275 people at their present salaries," of whom about 150 would work in the newsroom. The good news is that, at this level, "The paper would be a solid moneymaker, boasting a profit margin of about 10%."
The bad news is a newsroom of 150. That may sound big to readers of The Nation, but just a couple of years ago the L.A. Times had more than 1,000 reporters and editors. Today it has about 625. An online L.A. Times would be tiny compared to the glory days.
But is the abandonment of print really necessary for the survival of serious journalism? I can’t help remembering when TV arrived in the 1950s, all the experts predicted the end of the Hollywood studios. They asked who would pay to sit in a theater to watch something they could see at home for free? But the studios found ways to compete with television, and today the film industry makes billions of dollars.
The same thing happened when FM radio arrived, and all the experts said that meant the end of AM. But AM radio was re-invented – in part by Rush Limbaugh and his ilk – and now makes a fortune for its owners. E-mail didn’t lead to the closing of the Post Office. Cell phones didn’t make land lines obsolete. Those of us who love to go out and pick up their newspapers from the front lawn every morning are now hoping something similar will happen with newsprint.