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Lack of Vision To Blame for Newspaper Woes

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?

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.

A survey by the University of Southern California's Annenberg center found that Net users are spending 53 minutes per week reading online newspapers, up from 41 minutes in 2007. The problem, as you've undoubtedly heard, is that the print advertising that has supported sizable newsrooms is plunging, while online ads bring in just a fraction of the revenue. Combine that with an Internet culture built on free content, and newspapers suddenly find themselves on a starvation diet.

Numerous schemes are being floated, from turning newspapers into nonprofits to seeking foundation grants. Steven Brill, the founder of Court TV and the defunct magazine Brill's Content, has joined with two other former media executives to form Journalism Online. He is talking to publishers about a site that would allow consumers to easily buy subscriptions, day passes or single articles from numerous media organizations, each of which would decide how much to charge and how much to put behind a pay wall. Rupert Murdoch, who is considering development of an e-reader that might be better suited to newspapers than Amazon's Kindle, also plans to begin charging "micro-payments" for individual articles on the Wall Street Journal's subscription-only Web site, the Financial Times reports.

But what about the old rolled-up, flip-through-the-pages, take-it-on-the-subway product? In a world where the most obscure factoid can be searched in seconds, is most of America now immune to those charms? With both Chicago newspapers in bankruptcy, that may be the case.

Clay Shirky of New York University says on his blog that "people committed to saving newspapers [are] demanding to know, 'If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?' To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the Internet just broke."

Maybe he's right. To recite the wonders of the daily paper -- the serendipitous mixture of serious and playful, plugged-in local columnists, a natural forum for in-depth articles -- is to risk sounding like a fuddy-duddy gentleman preaching the virtues of ascots and walking sticks.

But then there is the reporting. In 2003, the Globe won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, a courageous journalistic feat that led to the resignation of Boston's archbishop and sparked inquiries around the world. Can the slimmed-down Globe of the future do such intensive reporting? Could any other media outlet in Boston even attempt such a project?

Newspaper folks may have an inflated view of their self-importance, but what they do has an impact beyond their readers and advertisers. Local TV isn't likely to expose a crooked mayor, as the Detroit Free Press did. Bloggers aren't going to reveal secret CIA prisons.

"Society doesn't need newspapers. What we need is journalism," Shirky argues. That is way too glib. The online cacophony that would follow the demise of newspapers would be fast, furious and fun, insightful and opinionated. But let's face it: Who would pay for a Baghdad bureau, or even a bureau in Albany or Annapolis?

I still have the buffet mentality, the idea that news, sports, entertainment and so on can make for a tasty package. Buffet folks like to get a fill, a briefing, a contextual sense of what's important. But so many others in the iTunes age would rather cherry-pick, clicking on one story and rushing off, window shoppers who rarely come inside.

Newspapers are probably dying as a mass medium, except perhaps for elite or specialized audiences. Cutting down forests, printing the product and trucking it across the region no longer make economic sense. What is lost is the sense of community when everyone read the daily rag.

Nothing lasts forever. I grew up in the era of tinny AM radios and 45 rpm records. I've worked for an afternoon paper that went under, the scrappy Washington Star. Maybe serious journalism will reinvent itself in new and unexpected forms. But if everything goes electronic, I'll always miss the feel of newsprint.

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