By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 11, 2009 1:55 PM
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 past few weeks have shaken my belief, suggesting that what I find indispensable -- a daily compendium delivered to your doorstep -- might 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.Reporting Ain't Free
Frank Rich also examines the newspaper crisis (while first dissing that newfangled Twitter) but ends up with a conclusion similar to mine:
"No sooner did boldface Washington media personalities ostentatiously embrace Twitter than Nielsen reported that more than 60 percent of Twitter users abandon it after a single month . . .
"The real question is for the public, not journalists: Does it want to pony up for news, whatever the media that prevail? It's all a matter of priorities. Not long ago, we laughed at the idea of pay TV. Free television was considered an inalienable American right (as long as it was paid for by advertisers). Then cable and satellite became the national standard.
"By all means let's mock the old mainstream media as they preen and party on in a Washington ballroom. Let's deplore the tabloid journalism that, like the cockroach, will always be with us. But if a comprehensive array of real news is to be part of the picture as well, the time will soon arrive for us to put up or shut up. Whatever shape journalism ultimately takes in America, make no mistake that in the end we will get what we pay for."As The Globe Turns
When I suggested last week that the NYT had underplayed the parent company's threat to kill the Boston Globe, the Times business editor politely suggested I was wrong. But Public Editor Clark Hoyt agrees with me:
"When The New York Times Company said it was prepared to start the clock on a shutdown of The Boston Globe, it was front-page news in last Monday's Washington Post. In The Times, it made the second paragraph of a short article inside the business section . . .
"The prospect that New England's largest and most influential newsgathering organization could be silenced had readers complaining about the parent company's refusal to explain itself -- and about the way its flagship newspaper, The Times, handled the story. The Times, which demands transparency and accountability from all sorts of other public institutions, found itself in the uncomfortable position of trying to cover one that had zipped its lip -- its own company . . .
"But when the story involves the most revered company in the industry -- and it happens to be yours -- I think there is a special obligation to be aggressive, which The Times has seemed loath to do."Nicks, Not Cuts
You've got to admit that Obama's budget cuts have been pretty anemic so far -- and the Dems have been balking even at the ones he's proposed. Slate's John Dickerson examines the math, saying the controversy over the size "helps enlarge the president's relatively modest act of deficit reduction. Instead of having a conversation about whether the cuts do anything to solve the problem they're intended to solve, Obama can have a debate about whether $17 billion is a big number. This is an eminently winnable debate, because as [Robert] Gibbs notes, compared with the amount of money most 'regular people' see in their lifetimes, $17 billion is a big number.
"Still, everything is relative. Compared to my dining nook, the Pentagon cafeteria is huge. But closing it wouldn't save the federal government much money. Also, this debate puts the president on the other side of unpopular institutions like the GOP and journalists. Portraying yourself as the embodiment of common sense never hurts a politician. . . .
"What's notable here is that Obama is asking us to play small ball. Normally, he takes the opposite approach. His central quality -- celebrated repeatedly last week in the 100th-day extravaganza -- is that he knows how to put things in their larger context. Obama's the guy who stays cool and steady when other people get exercised about small things . . .
"So why is Obama playing small ball? He's got to show he cares about the deficit. Despite his high approval rating, the American people are worried about the enormous budget deficit he's creating."Having a Gay Time
The new ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee has already stirred controversy, as Jonathan Chait points out in the New Republic:
"I'm trying to figure out what exactly Jeff Sessions meant when he said he could support a Supreme Court justice who had 'gay tendencies.' Clearly he is making a concession of sorts. But precisely what he is conceding is not clear. Here is Sessions' exact formulation: 'I don't think a person who acknowledges that they have gay tendencies is disqualified per se for the job.'
"It's as if Sessions wandered into his answer intending at first to say that a justice's sexual orientation shouldn't matter, but then thought better of it and tried to walk back the sentiment in mid-sentence. The 'per se' is a telling qualifier. Being gay does not disqualify you per se, but, you know, it's two strikes against you.
"And, of course, Sessions is only willing to allow 'gay tendencies.' This of course is not the same thing as being willing to vote for a justice who's actually gay. Just gay-ish."The Oprah Factor
The Elizabeth Edwards appearance on Oprah has been even more hotly debated than I expected, perhaps because it was so raw and because her sticking with the husband who humiliated her is both fascinating and appalling to many women. Salon's Rebecca Traister isn't sure why the former senator's wife is going public:
"I cannot remember an hour spent with Ms. Winfrey over the past three decades that has felt more like slowly pushing rusty fishhooks through my eyeballs than the one on Thursday, during which I watched her interview Elizabeth Edwards about her husband's extramarital affair.
"I am not the only person wondering, this week, as we commence one of the most sadomasochistic publicity jaunts in political history, what on earth Edwards is trying to accomplish by holding forth about her personal pain and exposing herself and her family not only to further gossip and humiliation, but to political censure. Her conversation with Oprah (which was so raw and extensive that at one point it made me do something a talk show never has: heave a monstrous and unwilling sob) was a good reminder of why Elizabeth is such a compelling player in this drama, and, alas, offered an opportunity to guess at some twistingly sad answers . . .
"What Edwards cannot escape is her own role in her husband's massive professional screw-up. She claimed her first reaction to the news of Edwards' affair was to tell him to get out of the campaign, but that he managed to convince her otherwise by pointing out how many questions would be asked if he bowed out two days after bowing in. That's a fair, but not great, excuse, plausible if she truly believed -- as she claims she did -- that John's indiscretion was a one-night thing, something that, alas, many politicians have on their résumés. But it doesn't hold up so well, as Winfrey pointed out, when Elizabeth's cancer relapse created an exit opportunity that not only would have provoked no questions, but might have protected them from gossip too disrespectful to dredge up under the circumstances."
In retrospect, they both would have been better off. But they lusted for the White House.
George Stephanopoulos (via Ambinder) says he has learned from Edwards sources that "by late December, early January of last year, several people in his inner circle began to think the rumors were true. Several of them had gotten together and devised a 'doomsday' strategy of sorts.
"Basically, if it looked like Edwards was going to win the Democratic Party nomination, they were going to sabotage his campaign, several former Edwards' staffers have told me."
Gail Sheehy sees a partisan divide in sex scandals:
"I've often wondered why Democrats who run for president are more often burned at the stake of supermarket tabloids for having affairs than Republican candidates. Maybe because Republicans tend to sleep with their own kind, while Democrats sleep beneath themselves. And those women can be counted on to sell their stories.
"Not to make a federal case out of this flip observation, but think about Bill Clinton and John Edwards' paramours. Like Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers before her, Rielle Hunter was not a discreet choice. Interns, lounge singers, and independent contractors like Rielle, the videographer paid by Edwards to travel with the campaign, are not easily silenced once they're dumped. As usually happens, Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, is now gunning for the mistress, while continuing to cohabit with her malpracticing husband. But this time, the other woman may hold up the disgraced politician with a ransom baby . . .
"One daring exception to this lineup of standees-by-their men was the second wife of Newt Gingrich . . . He behaved as if other people's rules didn't apply to him, running around with other women through both his marriages while campaigning as a moral crusader and wielding a hammer as the tough new speaker."
I'd say they all behaved as though the rules don't apply to them.