There is growing speculation that before long another major city -- St. Louis -- will have only one daily newspaper. The No. 2 paper, the Globe Democrat, is being dunned by a group of employees, the Newspaper Guild and the city for unpaid debts. If the "Closed" sign goes up, there will be only 141 cities left in the United States with daily newspaper competition.
In the rest of the nation's cities the daily papers are monopolies.
Even the list of 142 competitive cities is a bit of an exaggeration, for in 89 of this number the existing papers have the same ownership. That leaves only 53 cities that are served by two or more newspapers. (Washington is one of the 53. In addition to The Post, there is the Washington Times, which has only about a tenth the daily circulation and doesn't publish on Saturdays and Sundays. Its New York City sister paper suspended publication this week.)
And many of the papers in these 53 cities have joint operating agreements with their rivals, which means that one paper serves the other as printer, advertising solicitor or circulator, or two papers create a third entity to provide such services. This leaves, according to the American Newspaper Publishers Association, only 32 cities that have separately owned, separately operated, fully competing dailies. Only 32!
Monopoly status is not bad financially for a publisher or a shareholder. Recent bidding battles have highlighted that survival turns properties into money-making machines. But it is not so good for readers who then may have available only one view of the community and the world, as painted by the editorials and by the choice of columnists, cartoonists and sometimes even the letters to the editor. Newspapers do attempt balance in these matters, but the extent is up to them. In the news columns content is decided by individual editors who make subjective judgments as to what constitutes news. Without competition their decisions have finality.
When papers have monopoly status, editors' news judgments make the papers powerhouses in setting the readers' agenda. An editor's decision to feature a subject makes it important and urgent. A decision to ignore or bury may keep it from public consciousness and concern. If you have any doubts about this, watch your public officials -- they move in on news stories as if someone suddenly turned on the spotlight and switched on the light bulb in their craniums. There is a great deal of truth in the statement that if the paper doesn't cover a meeting, convention or demonstration, "it's as if it didn't happen."
There is also the feeling of some busy newspaper readers that they are the victims of "information overload." I was stunned last month when a woman, with all the credentials for yuppie status, confided she no longer reads a daily paper. She is a "Sunday only" reader now, relying on gulps of radio news while driving to and from her office, sometimes a dinner-hour television report or an occasional exposure to news magazines at her doctor's or dentist's office.
Granted, one cool day does not make an autumn and one daily cancellation is not statistically significant, the encounter did make me wonder how many more like her there are around the country and how many of the young will follow suit. Already a paper like The Post has a fourth more subscribers for the Sunday paper than for the daily.
Papers can go skinny, but there is a price to readers. In short space (or short reading time) there is room for only capsule reports with frequent reliance on journalistic shorthand and labeling, and little chance to explain or provide the shadings, history and contrasts that help give perspective and real understanding.
Increasingly, newspapers are moving to indexes, briefs and explanatory graphics to help busy readers, and of course, there have always been the headlines, but they all provide only clues to the news. Short, simplistic reports can be misleading and leave readers believing there are simple ways to deal with complex problems.
If we are destined to have fewer daily newspapers, it is important to help the survivors -- papers and readers -- continue to have available broad and in-depth coverage of the news and informed commentary. If my yuppie friend is the signal of a trend in the offing, woe is me, and woe is us.