Under Weight of Its Mistakes, Newspaper Industry Staggers

The list of two-newspaper towns got shorter on Friday, the last day for Denver's 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News.
The list of two-newspaper towns got shorter on Friday, the last day for Denver's 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News. (By John Moore -- Getty Images)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper recalls getting "a feeling in the pit of my stomach" when he learned that the Rocky Mountain News was shutting down.

"Even when they were uncovering corruption in the city, even when they were embarrassing us or causing us discomfort, they were making the city better," he says. "It's a huge loss."

The grim echoes of the nearly 150-year-old paper's demise Friday could be heard in newsrooms and communities across the country. Although the Denver Post will still cover Hickenlooper's region, some cities -- most notably San Francisco -- are facing the prospect of life without a major newspaper. Others, from Philadelphia to Chicago to Minneapolis, have watched their papers slide into bankruptcy, while still others are being served by dailies with newsrooms that have shriveled by half.

Why a once-profitable industry suddenly seems as outmoded as America's automakers is a tale that involves arrogance, mistakes, eroding trust and the rise of a digital world in which newspapers feel compelled to give away their content.

"Most of the wounds are self-inflicted," says Phil Bronstein, editor at large of the San Francisco Chronicle, which Hearst Corp. has threatened to close unless major cost savings are achieved or a buyer is found. Rather than engage the audience, he says, "the public was seen as kind of messy and icky and not something you needed to get involved with."

As the newsroom staff has shrunk from 575 when Bronstein took over as editor in 2000 to 275 now, "it's objectively true that there's less in the paper," he says. "You can't deny a loss is a loss."

Tom Fiedler, the Miami Herald's former executive editor, says if that paper folds -- McClatchy Newspapers is looking for a buyer -- "nobody else will step in and do the occasionally extraordinary reporting that newspapers do. The difference that a good newspaper makes to the quality of life in any community is vital. It's like a healthy heart."

Fiedler, now dean of Boston University's College of Communication, says the Herald's newsroom staff has dwindled from about 420 to 260 in nine years. "My fear is that newspapers will become what local television became a long time ago," he says. "When there's yellow tape around it or the county commission meets to take a vote, we'll cover it."

At a time when such companies as General Motors, Home Depot and Citigroup are ordering mass layoffs, the loss of 12,000 newspaper jobs last year may seem small. But the industry's woes -- plunging advertising revenue, declining circulation and burgeoning high-tech competition -- seem to be worsening by the week. And that has critics questioning why newspaper companies didn't adapt to the Internet more quickly.

"Years ago," says Jeff Jarvis, a blogger who has worked for the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Examiner and the New York Daily News, "why didn't we take more aggressive action and use the power of our megaphone to promote the product and change the organization?" The answer is that newspapers were "a cash cow," he says. "We thought too much about trying to preserve what we had."

The last big wave of newspaper consolidation took place three decades ago, eliminating such names as the Washington Star, the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Chicago Daily News and the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and leaving most cities with one highly profitable paper. Now, with a number of major papers up for sale, industry analysts say the recession has all but eliminated willing buyers.

New-media enthusiasts say newspapers, saddled with costly printing presses and delivery trucks, are not irreplaceable. But Josh Marshall, whose Web site, Talking Points Memo, has six reporters -- and plans to hire more -- does not minimize the loss of dailies.

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