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Media Notes: Can Newspapers Be Saved?

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 11, 2009

Is this it?

Is the product you are accustomed to holding in your hands a relic, soon to go the way of silent movies and manual typewriters?

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I have been one of the industry's most fervent optimists, convinced that somehow, some way, newspapers would find a path to survival. But the last few weeks have shaken my belief, suggesting that what I find indispensable -- a daily compendium delivered to your doorstep -- may be left behind by history and public indifference.

The bleak future becomes clear when one paper after another whacks a third or more of its staff -- the Baltimore Sun is just the latest -- and the New York Times Co. threatens to shut down the Boston Globe before settling for painful cutbacks. This is not some temporary downturn; these jobs are gone forever.

Warren Buffett, who reads five newspapers a day, now sees the possibility of "just unending losses" and says he wouldn't buy one at any price. The legendary investor is not just very wealthy but owns the Buffalo News and a chunk of The Washington Post Co.

The people who run such companies bear a considerable share of the blame. In 1993, just before the Internet became a consumer force, I argued in a book that newspapers had become too cautious, too incremental and too dull, tailored largely for insiders. The rise of hugely profitable monopoly papers in most cities made them increasingly bland, seemingly allergic to controversy.

Then the Net changed America, but newspapers remained mired in two-dimensional thinking. They created sites that were largely a static replica of their print editions. There was little updating, little sense of the dynamism of the Web, and when I started writing a blog for washingtonpost.com in 2000, I had little company in the mainstream media.

The missed opportunities were endless. For the first time in half a century, newspapers could compete against television with real-time reporting, but didn't. The Globe's previous owners turned down a 1995 offer from the founder of Monster.com to put Globe classifieds online, before his site became a smash hit. Why did no establishment media company create a Craigslist, a Huffington Post, a Google News, a Twitter, or other sites that have altered the boundaries of news and information?

Now that they are belatedly beefing up their Web sites, executives are using corporate-speak like "platform-agnostic" to explain why they are firing hordes of journalists suddenly deemed redundant. Perhaps newspapers had grown too fat and were always destined to slim down in the Web era, but the mass firings have about them an air of desperation. How can papers with far smaller staffs and reduced ambitions stem circulation declines?

Some high-level people are trying to square the circle. Post Co. chief executive Donald Graham and Google chief executive Eric Schmidt and their lieutenants have been holding talks about a possible collaboration. This could range from creating new Web pages to technological tools for journalists or readers. Hanging over the talks is the reality that the search giant, while funneling vital traffic to news sites, vacuums up their content without paying a dime.

Post executive Philip Bennett confirmed the discussions, saying: "We're talking to each other about improved ways of creating and presenting news online." He calls it "an informal collaboration" that "has produced some interesting ideas already. I'd say that on the journalism side of the conversation we've learned a lot."

Oddly enough, newspapers are reaching more people than ever before. In 1999, The Post had a circulation of 786,000, essentially limited to Washington and its suburbs. Now the print circulation is 665,000 and The Post's Web site is drawing 9.4 million unique monthly visitors from around the world.


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