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Eugene Robinson: Boston Globe and Other Papers Struggle to Survive

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The Boston Globe and its largest workers union have finished all-night contract-concession talks without a deal. The Globe's owner, Times Co. has threatened to shutdown the 137-year-old newspaper. Video by AP

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Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, May 5, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, May 5 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns, including today's about the financial woe's of the the Boston Globe and the newspaper industry, as well as the latest news.

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Eugene Robinson: Hello, and welcome to another action-packed hour of news and views. Today's column, actually, was about the news -- the future of the Boston Globe, which seems to have won a reprieve. The state of our industry isn't the cheeriest subject, but it is what it is. As fodder for discussion, we also have the upcoming Supreme Court vacancy, the Specter switch, the Taliban offensive in Pakistan... lots to chew over. Let's get started.

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Globe (and Post) fan in Washington DC: Gene: Your story on the Globe today was fine, but what about your own poor, shrinking paper, The Post? It's reduced its reporting staff, shrunk the comics and baseball reporting and scores, just about lost the business page, completely lost Book World, and so on and on. Its price has gone up 3-fold while this was happening. Soon it won't be worth buying. What is next?

And congratulations on the well-deserved Pulitzer.

Eugene Robinson: I'm confident the paper will remain worth buying. I'm convinced, though, that the old, fat, five-section metro dailies of the past are probably going to shrink. I think the new norm, for newspapers in general, will involve fewer sections and a somewhat higher newsstand price. If there aren't but so many ads, there can't be but so many pages. Our job will be to make it still worth the price of admission.

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Alexandria, Va.: Newspapers are going the way of the buggy whip-- there is simply no use for them anymore, except perhaps by the retired, unemployed or independently wealthy who have the time necessary to wade through them. The handwriting on the wall is obvious. Why try to save them? (Besides the obvious self-preservation answer.) There will be no dearth of commentary concerning the state of our democracy on the Internet and in other media.

Eugene Robinson: Nearly 700,000 people buy The Washington Post every day -- and considerably more on Sundays. Obviously they're not all retired, unemployed or wealthy -- but what would it matter if they were? What business sense would it make not to sell them a newspaper?

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Boston: Hi Gene,

Here in Boston the general consensus was that the Herald would be the next paper to go, but now that seems less certain. The Herald now runs a daily story taunting the Globe for its failures. I don't think a Boston without the Globe would be much of a financial boost to the Herald. People seem to read one or the other. What do you think?

Thanks

Eugene Robinson: I agree that the demise of the Globe, if it were to happen, wouldn't do much for the Herald. And keep in mind that the Herald might still be the first to go. It's easier for me to envision a business model for the Globe than for the Herald.

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Baltimore Sun and Post Fan: Thank you for your article. I'm looking for a bit more historical perspective. How did papers become so big in the first place. By papers, I really mean the companies that owned and operated them. Why has the era of local ownership gone by the board? Have newspapers adapted at a rate that is commensurate with the changes in technology that are occurring each day?

On a separate note, how frightening is it that Jefferson Sessions is actually being given a post of responsibility with regard to approving a Supreme Court justice?

Eugene Robinson: In many cities (not here, happily), family ownership gave way to chain ownership. Afternoon papers went into decline and began to fail, leaving many cities with one-paper monopolies. These newspapers made big profits -- margins of 20 percent or more were pretty common -- as chains squeezed them for every last drop. Newspapers didn't understand how the internet would change the world. First radio and then television failed to kill newspapers (as had been predicted), but this is a more serious challenge.

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NY: Why buy a newspaper when it's free online? It's an insane business model.

Eugene Robinson: Another way of asking your question is: If newspapers didn't exist, would anyone invent them in 2009? It's tempting to say no, but tell me, do you ever print out a document that's available in electronic form? We were supposed to all be working in "paperless" offices by now, but paper use keeps going up, last I checked. Paper has proved to be a convenient, useful medium. That doesn't mean it'll last forever, but the buggy-whip comparison isn't really right.

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lots to chew on...: including a federal probe into the Edwards campaign. Oh, wait, that's not on your radar. Never mind.

Eugene Robinson: That's definitely on my radar. Talked about it on "Hardball" last night. I think it's quite right that prosecutors want to follow the money that Edwards' campaign paid to his mistress.

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Former South by Southwest, D.C'er: What do you think the decline of daily newspapers says about our society in general? Do you feel online offerings can capture daily life the same way the print newscycle does. And, not to sound too tinfoil hatish (although you're the ones in D.C.), we are rapidly moving toward a society where most information will simply cease to exist if, oh, electricity goes away.

Eugene Robinson: I'm not sure there is any profound message about society in the travails of daily newspapers. Those of us who grew up with print love the serendipity of leafing through the paper and coming across something that shocks, surprises or delights -- but I can understand how this would be meaningless to anyone who has never had the experience. Your observation about information storage is anything but tinfoil-hat material, however. I have lots of photos and documents archived on CD's, but how long will there be CD drives to read them? I have interviews I conducted years ago on cassette tape -- but I don't think I have a cassette tape recorder anywhere in my office or home anymore.

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Washington, DC: What do you think about the idea of newspapers forgoing their profit motive and becoming non-profit organizations with an educational mission. They would be able to raise money in annual fund drives (ala PBS/NPR and universities) and establish permanent endowments to support their operating costs?

Seems like a good idea to me...I would contribute to starting the endowment...

Eugene Robinson: There are very smart people who believe the non-profit model is the way to go. I see the argument, but I'm not on board yet. In an age of niche media, newspapers still do a pretty good job -- and some do a great job -- of aggregating a mass audience. It seems to me that this should be worth something to advertisers. Seems to me it should be worth a lot, actually. I guess one of the things I worry about is: Who defines the "educational mission" that we'd be obliged to perform?

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Boston: Has anyone done a study of debt loads over time at news media companies? Is this another case of the recent era of cheap debt coming back to bite us (on top of the ad revenue decline in the newspaper business)?

Eugene Robinson: That's an excellent question. In a number of cases, crushing debt loads have contributed to the decline or demise of great newspapers. When tycoon Sam Zell bought the Tribune Co., for example, he did the deal by assuming a huge amount of debt. To service it, he has had to cut costs so drastically that he has long since torn through muscle and sinew and is now gouging into bone. When you cut too much, the paper does become worth less to readers... so you make less money, which means you have to cut more, which means it's worth even less to readers... That's called a vicious cycle.

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Richmond, VA: What's your take on journalists meeting with the President under ground rules that prohibit them from writing about it? Too cozy?

I'm thinking of David Brooks a few months ago and Paul Krugman last week, both from The New York Times.

P.S. I'm assuming you haven't been having secret pow-wows at the White House yourself, although I assume you couldn't tell us if you were.

Eugene Robinson: If I told you I'd have to kill you.

Just kidding. No, I haven't had any off-the-record meetings with the president, but I have had such sessions with other newsmakers since I've been a columnist. I avoided off-the-record encounters of this kind when I was a reporter, not out of concern about coziness but because I didn't want to be in the position of being given a great story that I couldn't tell anybody about. Also, because that was The Post's rule, I think. It seems to me that columnists should have more leeway, since their main role is to analyze, not to report. But now that I type it, I can see how some would see that as a distinction without a difference.

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Arlington,: Gene,

Do you have a life time contract? I'm not in the newspaper business but I don't know anyone with a lifetime contract. Is this like a university professor getting tenure?

Eugene Robinson: I do not have a lifetime contract. And I'm in an exempt position, which means I don't have a union contract, either.

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Atlanta: Hi Gene. Congrats on the award and on keeping us entertained on Countdown.

I'm also in the newspaper biz, so all these bigger publications facing trouble has me shaking in my boots. I think the obvious solution is for these companies to actually make people pay for the content. Chick-fil-A doesn't give you a free chicken sandwich every time you visit its Web site, so why hasn't the newspaper industry decided to change this? I think if every AP member met somewhere and said "we need to charge to survive," the vast majority of publications would be charging for online subscriptions with free access to print subscribers. There are at least three or four publications I would gladly pay a small fee to access.

Your thoughts?

Eugene Robinson: I agree. But getting people to pay for internet-delivered news is really hard -- maybe it'll work next time, but it hasn't worked before, except for the Wall Street Journal. Maybe it would work if all newspapers started charging at once. (Note to Justice Department: This would be just a coincidence, not a violation of numerous antitrust statutes.)

But I'm still hung up on the fact that at our time of financial woe, we're reaching far more readers than ever before. I can't understand why an advertising-based model is suddenly unworkable when we can deliver such a mass readership.

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Eugene Robinson: Thanks, everybody. My time is up for today. I'll be away for the next couple of weeks, but back at the end of May.

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