Cities Without Newspapers
As the economic noose tightens, the notion of big cities without local dailies seems a real possibility. What would the impact be on civic life? And what might emerge to fill the gap?
By Rachel Smolkin
This spring, Princeton economist Sam Schulhofer-Wohl and his colleague Miguel Garrido issued a paper of vital importance to print journalists desperate for a sliver of good news: "Do Newspapers Matter? Evidence from the Closure of The Cincinnati Post."
The economists noted their findings were "statistically imprecise," yet concluded that newspapers, "even underdogs such as the Post, which had a circulation of just 27,000 when it closed can have a substantial and measurable impact on public life."
The Cincinnati Post, a former E.W. Scripps Co. paper that expired December 31, 2007, and its Kentucky Post edition dominated circulation in the northern Kentucky suburbs, where the economists focused their inquiry. They concluded the Post's closure lowered the number of people voting in elections and the number of candidates for city council, city commission and school board in those areas. It also increased incumbent council and commission members' chances of staying in office.
"What most surprised me is I actually did find evidence that newspapers matter," says Schulhofer-Wohl, an assistant professor of economics and public affairs. At 32, he is on his second career. His first, as a journalist, included stints as a copy editor at Alabama's Birmingham Post-Herald, another now-defunct Scripps paper, and as a copy editor and reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I was very worried when I went into this [research] that what I would end up proving is my whole career had been kind of pointless."
Instead, Schulhofer-Wohl added to a small but growing body of economics research supporting the notion that newspapers make a difference in their communities evidence emerging even as the industry struggles in a radically changing media environment during the worst recession since the Great Depression.
These attempts to quantify newspapers' impact on public life come as a handful of major American newspapers close and others barely cling to life. The unsettling possibility looms that some big cities could lose their sole remaining daily newspaper and that the public won't care. If the dead-tree edition of a newspaper falls in a crowded media forest, will it matter, except to the journalists who work there? Are newer, hipper online news outlets poised to fill the void? What, if anything, will be irrevocably lost?
Journalists have long touted the indispensable role that newspapers play in a democracy, shining a bright light on the activities of elected officials. Journalism professors and political scientists have studied the way newspaper content affects readers' knowledge about local and national events.
Despite lots of legal, political and economic theory, though, "what we actually know" empirically or directly about the impact that a newspaper or its death has on a community "is relatively limited compared to its importance," says Matthew Gentzkow, an associate professor of economics at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. "What's exciting is there's been an upsurge of work on that question."
Gentzkow's own research, with colleague Jesse Shapiro, probes the impact on voter turnout in elections where U.S. newspapers have closed from the 1870s until modern times. Though they are still analyzing the data, some preliminary evidence suggests that turnout may drop significantly in communities after a newspaper closes.
At MIT, economics and political science professor Jim Snyder teamed with Stockholm University economist David Strφmberg and found that members of Congress who get a lot of newspaper coverage work harder for their constituents than those who don't: They funnel more money back home and testify at more committee hearings; they also are less likely to vote along party lines.
A second project the duo is launching with a Stanford business professor explores the impact of newspaper coverage on judicial behavior. They will examine whether judges who are elected and receive lots of print coverage hand down sentences that reflect the political outlook of their area. "There is some evidence [from previous research] that judges who are elected, especially in conservative areas, are tougher in their sentencing," Snyder says. "The idea is to see whether [newspaper] scrutiny, the watchdog role, matters for judicial behavior."
Pollsters at the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press have exposed an alarming disconnect between newspapers' role in civic life and the public's appreciation of it. A Pew survey conducted in March of about 1,000 adults found that only 43 percent of Americans say losing their local newspaper would hurt civic life in their community "a lot." A mere 33 percent said they would miss reading the local paper a lot if it were no longer available.
"In our media surveys, you get the sense that many people don't recognize the source of their news, especially when it comes to online news," says Carroll Doherty, Pew's associate director. "They may be following a link, they may be forwarding a link, they may be on Facebook and click on a link. People may be getting more information from newspapers than they realize."
Notes Conrad Fink, a former journalist who teaches newspaper management and strategy at the University of Georgia: "The American public doesn't realize it, but they're going to miss us if we're gone."
The notion that newspapers actually might be gone in the foreseeable future is the subject of much anxiety on media blogs and even in major news publications, where predictions of newspaper deaths were en vogue early this year.
In a February 16 Time cover story, the magazine's former managing editor Walter Isaacson breathlessly declared: "During the past few months, the crisis in journalism has reached meltdown proportions." Isaacson, now president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, added, "It is now possible to contemplate a time when some major cities will no longer have a newspaper and when magazines and network-news operations will employ no more than a handful of reporters."
In a front-page New York Times story March 12, Mike Simonton, a senior director at Fitch Ratings who focuses on media debt, predicted: "In 2009 and 2010, all the two-
newspaper markets will become one-newspaper markets, and you will start to see one-newspaper markets become no-newspaper markets."
Simonton was at it again six days later, when my own newspaper, USA Today, published a Money section cover story: "Extra! Extra! Are newspapers dying?" The article forecast that at least one city likely will soon lose its last daily newspaper and quoted Simonton as saying that newspaper deaths "could be a lot more widespread than people have been predicting."
While some of these dire prophesies seem a little overwrought, it's hard to argue with the perception that the industry is vulnerable.
Since December, six companies that publish daily newspapers have sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, among them Tribune Co., which owns eight daily metro papers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune; Star Tribune Holdings Corp., which owns Minneapolis' Star Tribune; the Philadelphia Newspapers LLC, owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News; and the Sun-Times Media Group Inc., anchored by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Scripps' 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News in Denver published its last edition February 27. Hearst's Seattle Post-Intelligencer followed 18 days later with its last print edition. The 146-year-old paper with an editorial staff of 165 is now an online-only publication with an editorial staff of 21. Gannett's Tucson Citizen in Arizona published its final print edition May 16; the 138-year-old paper will linger as an online-only opinion site.
Hearst has threatened to close or sell its San Francisco Chronicle, the city's sole remaining paid-circulation daily, if the newspaper can't dramatically cut expenses. (Philip F. Anschutz's San Francisco Examiner is delivered free to targeted homes. See "Home Free," April/May 2007.) Hearst said February 24 that the Chronicle lost more than $50 million in 2008 and "this year's losses to date are worse."
In March, the paper's largest union agreed to drastic cuts to meet management's demands, including allowing the Chronicle to slash at least 150 union jobs. "The immediate goal is to reduce staff, and we may not know until later in the year whether other factors," such as contracting out the printing of the paper, will help keep the Chronicle alive, says Doug Cuthbertson, executive officer of the California Media Workers Guild, which includes editorial, advertising and circulation employees.
The following month, even the nation's premier newspaper company stepped into this maelstrom of uncertainty. The New York Times Co. threatened to shutter its prestigious Boston Globe unless the Globe's unions agreed to $20 million in concessions. The paper was projected to lose $85 million this year without substantial cost reductions, according to the Times Co. After a turbulent month of negotiations, Globe Publisher P. Steven Ainsley told his newspaper in a front-page story May 8 that the threatened closure had been "extraordinarily difficult" for readers, advertisers, employees and him. He said he expected further job losses but predicted the Globe would still be publishing a year from now if union members ratify wage cuts and other concessions.
Newspaper stock prices are dismal. McClatchy, which showed great faith in the industry's future by boldly buying the Knight Ridder chain in 2006, hovered around 70 cents per share in early May. Among its 30 newspapers are the Miami Herald, Sacramento Bee and Raleigh's News & Observer. Lee Enterprises, which in 2005 acquired Pulitzer and its 14 daily newspapers, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (see "Lee Who?" June/July 2005), was barely above 30 cents per share in early spring before creeping past $1 in May.
"The chairmen of McClatchy, Lee, the rest of them have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders," Georgia's Fink says. "That is just as strong as our need to put out information to the public. They've got to respond to this. The question is:
How long can a publicly owned company continue to suffer those losses?"
Fink and other analysts add that some major newspaper companies are suffering not because their papers are unprofitable but because their owners have assumed vast amounts of debt. "When operating profit drops to 10 percent or 5 percent or disappears for a couple of years, that debt burden crushes them," he says of companies such as Lee and McClatchy. Tribune Co. has a $13 billion debt, mostly incurred when real estate tycoon Sam Zell took the company private in 2007.
Fink concludes: "I think there is imminent danger of losing some of these major papers."
Some media analysts believe forecasts about newspaper closures are premature. "The trend toward one-newspaper markets has been in the works for a long, long time," says Philip Meyer, a journalism professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of "The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age." "I don't think we're heading toward a no-newspaper trend."
John Morton, a media analyst and AJR columnist, notes that of the 1,422 daily newspapers in this country, "we never hear about, say, 1,350 of those newspapers, almost all of which are profitable.. not as much as two or three years ago, but they're not on the edge of a cliff, either." (See The Business of Journalism, June/July 2009.)
Publicly held newspaper companies reported just over 10 percent profit last year, down from double that in 2004 and the margin was only as high as 10 percent because of dramatic cost-cutting. Still, Morton says, "Bear in mind that an awful lot of businesses don't do 10 percent in the boom years."
Yet he's concerned that newspapers' financial turnaround will be incomplete even when the economy improves. In past recoveries from recessions, newspapers recaptured almost all of the advertising revenue lost during the downturn. Now that the Internet and its free classified ad model have taken root, it's not at all clear that will happen this time. "It may mean going forward that, particularly because of a potential loss of classified generally, that newspapers will be a lot less profitable than they have in the past," Morton says.
This year's "The State of the News Media," an annual accounting of the field by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, provides a sobering assessment of the industry that should be read by all journalists, though not without large quantities of alcohol nearby. Among its array of depressing statistics, it notes that newspaper ad revenues have dropped 23 percent in the last two years, and some newspapers have lost three-quarters of their value. "By our calculations, nearly one out of every five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 is now gone, and 2009 may be the worst year yet," the report says.
Its authors add: "There is not yet a major city without a newspaper, but that, too, could be coming soon."
Partly in response to the bleak outlook for metro papers and the relentless cost reductions at those publications, an exciting rebirth is taking place in cities such as San Diego, Minneapolis, New Haven, St. Louis and Chicago. Tiny but ambitious nonprofit online ventures are springing up as supplements or alternatives to the newspapers in their cities. They focus on public affairs and watchdog journalism the very functions that metro newspapers have long prided themselves on providing.
At voiceofsandiego.org, which has 11 total staff members, CEO Scott Lewis believes his reporters can provide the kind of accountability journalism that has long been the province of newspapers. "We have a mission here," Lewis says. "It's not to make money. It's to provide information and investigative reporting. Our reporters are not allowed to do a story unless they can answer a fundamental question: 'Why is this important?' We won't cover a celebrity who stabs his wife, which might be better for somebody who's trying to attract advertisers and readers."
Instead, the Web site has helped force out the heads of two local redevelopment agencies. One faces criminal charges; the other is the subject of a grand jury investigation. It has hammered the police chief for incorrectly stating the city's crime statistics. In March, a two-part series by Kelly Thornton, a former San Diego Union-Tribune reporter, explored the impact of the Mexican drug war on San Diego. In April, a two-part series revealed a "real estate swindle, uncovered by a three-month voiceofsandiego.org investigation, involving fake buyers, duped lenders, forged documents and extravagant purchase prices, that has infected two condo projects in Escondido and one in San Marcos."
This site, which gets about 72,000 unique visitors monthly, began in February 2005 with $355,000 in startup money from Buzz Woolley, a local entrepreneur who has given a total of $1.3 million. Yet this year Woolley's annual contribution will be $200,000, roughly one-fifth of the site's budget. Lewis says the site draws revenue from 826 donors, a growing list of corporate sponsors who will contribute 15 percent of its budget this year and funders such as the John S. and James L.
At the St. Louis Beacon (stlbeacon.org), launched in April 2008 (see Drop Cap, December 2008/January 2009), Editor Margaret Wolf Freivogel has adopted a similar slogan: "News That Matters." "Instead of covering a hugely broad range of things, we try to pick what's going to be significant and have some broader impact," she says, including probing the challenges facing St. Louis public schools, the effect of the mortgage crisis on the city and the racial dimensions of the mayor's race.
Freivogel, a former reporter and editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, says online journalism is a "far superior tool" for original reporting than print because it removes time and space constraints, allows links to previous work and offers opportunities for interacting with readers. "Online, it's so easy to try things, easy to experiment," she says. "That's an advantage of being a startup: You're starting with no expectations of your own or on the part of the public."
Her total staff of 17 is funded largely through donations, including a $500,000 challenge grant from Emily Pulitzer one of the Pulitzers who owned the Post-Dispatch until 2005. Freivogel hopes to transition to a larger membership base of small donors, similar to National Public Radio's model. This year, she also began accepting ads on the Web site, which attracts 28,000 unique visitors monthly.
MinnPost in Minneapolis (minnpost.com), an online public affairs site launched in November 2007 (see Drop Cap, February/March 2008), has more than 200,000 unique monthly visitors. Joel Kramer, its founder, editor and CEO, added a full-time Washington correspondent in January a nearly unheard of step at a time when many newspaper companies, including Copley, Newhouse and Media General, are shuttering their D.C. bureaus (see "Endangered Species," December 2008/January 2009).
"Our mission is public affairs journalism that matters for people who care about Minnesota," says Kramer, a former editor and publisher of the Star Tribune. "A lot happens in Washington that is of unique local interest."
Kramer hopes MinnPost will break even financially by 2011 or, if the economic slump continues, by 2012. He's using foundation money to propel MinnPost through the early years but ultimately hopes to cover expenses through advertising, sponsorship, membership and fundraising events, and tap foundation grants only for special expenses, such as investigative projects.
Lewis and Kramer say they've been flooded with calls from journalists around the country trying to start their own regional Web sites and are looking into forming a consortium of nonprofit regional online news operations. The consortium also could help the startups share challenges such as creating a national advertising network or finding attorneys who could vet their investigative work.
In Denver, a group of former newspaper staffers from the deceased Rocky Mountain News tried in early spring to launch a different sort of online news outlet: the for-profit InDenverTimes.com. In mid-March, the group announced backing from three local businessmen and pledged to move forward if it got 50,000 paying subscribers by April 23
($4.99 per month for one year), with a launch scheduled for May 4. "It's really a gamble," the site's managing editor, Steve Foster, said in mid-March. "We're not entirely sure it's going to work."
Rather than specializing in public affairs reporting, like its fledgling nonprofit brethren, the group behind InDenverTimes had hoped to provide broad coverage of the Denver metro area albeit with a staff of about 35 instead of the Rocky's former editorial roster of 230.
For example, "sports in Denver is huge," said Foster, a former Rocky assistant sports editor for interactive. "To cover local news without covering sports, you're missing a lot of interest for the community." That's also why he sought more journalists than some other startups: "If you've got a staff of 10 people, it's not a good idea to waste them covering a Denver Broncos game, but we have to cover the Denver Broncos."
By the April 23 deadline, though, the site had attracted only about 3,000 subscribers, and Foster and his group of journalists parted with the investors. In mid-May, Foster was planning a scaled-back general interest news site, the Rocky Mountain Independent. He hoped for a mid-summer launch with a core staff of no more than a dozen, including a tech person and business manager, supported by subscription and advertising revenue. He planned to supplement the staff of former Rocky reporters and editors with paid freelance contributors and partnerships with bloggers. Foster says he and other journalists would kick in startup money for the new venture.
"For-profit is still the goal," Foster says of the revamped site, adding, "I'm willing to work for free for three months to make it a reality."
Hearst, too, tried early this spring to carve out a for-profit niche online. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer began life anew as an online-only publication with 21 editorial staffers and 14 more on the sales side as of May 18.
"My line has always been [that] I want to be the best source of breaking local news in Seattle, and I still want that to be the case," says Michelle Nicolosi, who was assistant managing editor at the old seattlepi.com and now is executive producer of the new seattlepi.com. Among the staff are some of the best-known names from the PI, including political columnist Joel Connelly and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist David Horsey.
"We have a..trusted brand in the community with the Seattle PI," says Lincoln Millstein, senior vice president of Hearst Newspapers. "We did close the paper, unfortunately, but we want to try an experiment to see if we can extend the journalism by continuing with a digital effort."
Millstein says Hearst will subsidize seattlepi.com during its first few months, but the goal is profitability. While he says "our journalism will be the heartbeat of the site," he hopes it also will offer a laboratory for community interactions and that other Hearst papers can learn from the experiment with the "ultimate local community portal."
Borrowing from the model of The Huffington Post (huffingtonpost.com), seattlepi.com offers commentary by some prominent community figures, including Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief, and Rep. Jim McDermott, a Democrat whose district includes Seattle and parts of several surrounding communities.
"We have to grow beyond supporting our Web sites with our newspaper content," Millstein says. Though many news sites already mix their own journalism with blogging and comments from community members, "what's missing is sort of the middle blogging and content creation from well-known, knowledgeable sources in the community."
When decision-makers participate, he says, "They tell all their friends about it... It creates a level of engagement that provides more content, drives more traffic [to the site] and attracts more advertisers."
As Millstein describes the energy and excitement he believes the revamped seattlepi.com is creating, he freely acknowledges its leaders are culling from many different sources not only community leaders but also competing media sites and other Hearst newspapers and magazines. When Hearst decided to close the newspaper, its executives wondered how they could replicate the PI as an online-only publication with far fewer resources, Millstein says. "We realized we can't."
The nascent online publications are promising and inspiring. At least right now, though, none is poised to replace a big-city newspaper.
That's partly a function of scale: 10, 17 or even 35 people, no matter how motivated and talented, cannot replicate the work of several hundred. It's also a reflection of newspapers' mass audience. Despite declining circulation, newspapers still reach more than 34 million people on weekdays and 42 million on Sunday in print alone, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations data for the six months ending March 31. In March, news-paper Web sites' unique audience totaled 73.3 million, according to Nielsen Online. Newspapers use that mass influence to engage communities, prod policy changes and hold officials accountable.
"The power of newspapers still is their ability to aggregate audience and reach many people, particularly the opinion makers in a town or community," says Charlotte Hall, editor of the Orlando Sentinel.
The Sentinel, which has a circulation of 206,205 on weekdays and 315,298 on Sunday, has extensively documented questionable activities involving Central Florida's toll-road authority. An April 5 story revealed newly obtained Orange County grand-jury records that "detail a sophisticated political-fundraising operation" run out of the authority and "appear to place the agency's director in the middle of it an allegation he flatly denies."
The paper's work on the topic has "raised a huge outcry in the community," Hall says, "and it's because we're the megaphone in the community." While national newspapers have larger megaphones, such local watchdog reporting is unlikely to originate in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or USA Today. "I believe the most threatened accountability reporting is in our communities, not at the national level," Hall says.
Jim O'Shea, a former editor at the Los Angeles Times who was ousted in January 2008 over his refusal to slash the paper's battered newsroom even further, quotes the late playwright Arthur Miller's observation that a good newspaper is a "nation talking to itself." If a newspaper disappears, "What goes away is kind of an element of community leadership," O'Shea says.
O'Shea, now a Shorenstein fellow at Harvard University, says that although newspapers have scaled back their coverage of government institutions, the startups are in no position to replace their work. "For people to go in and work for next-to-nothing, with real low salaries and small staff, I applaud them, but I don't think it's a long-term solution," he says. "Who's going to cover the courthouse? That's the fundamental question."
"An investigative reporter has to be out there covering something to dig up stories," O'Shea adds. "Half the time, the best stories come from somebody who's covering a beat... You don't just sit in your office and dream up investigative projects and go do them."
When those investigative projects infuriate powerful community forces, institutional strength and infrastructure are critical. For particularly large and controversial stories, such as the Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, "you need institutional heft," says Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute. That involves, in part, layers of critical editors, copy editors and lawyers.
At voiceofsandiego.org, getting a media lawyer to review investigations was a need the staff didn't fully anticipate at first. "We decided to get the stories pre-vetted more often," CEO Lewis says. "We haven't been sued yet, but we realized the potential was certainly there." He has set aside $20,000 for possible legal expenses for the year.
Yet the typical libel lawsuit requires a minimum of $20,000 to $50,000 for the initial rounds of dismissal motions alone and only about half of those succeed, according to Chuck Tobin, a media attorney at Holland & Knight and former in-house counsel for Gannett. (He also has successfully defended AJR senior contributing writer Susan Paterno against a libel suit.)
"For any journalism enterprise to have the breathing room for hard-hitting investigative reporting and to withstand the blowback of libel litigation it should have a nest egg of six figures available to defend its reporting," Tobin says. "That's an unfortunate reality in today's legal environment."
The exciting online work being launched right now also assumes that major metros and national papers still exist and that the new outlets have the luxury of filling in gaps left by these publications, rather than trying to stitch together comprehensive coverage of a community.
"We will probably never be the sort of one-stop shopping as a daily newspaper," says Stephen Engelberg, managing editor of ProPublica(propublica.org), a national nonprofit investigative outlet launched last year. "This new era is going to be more reflective of people's interests, for better or worse."
During the presidential election, for example, ProPublica did not write about the daily political sparring or the latest campaign spending reports, but when Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin began boasting about her handling of the now-infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," "we were very interested" in exploring the truth behind her statements, Engelberg says. ProPublica also evaluated claims of voter fraud.
Such coverage "does presume an existing media universe," notes Engelberg, a former managing editor at Portland's Oregonian and investigative editor at the New York Times. "If someone said to me tomorrow, 'Portland no longer has a daily newspaper. Here's 20 reporters,' what do you do? What if they're it? You go to the school board, you go to the city planning meetings. How do you get any flavor of the community into your newspaper?"
This year, leaders of the American Society of Newspaper Editors had planned to focus their annual convention on survival strategies. But in a sign of the times, on February 27 the Rocky's last day of life ASNE canceled its convention and opted for online programming instead. The last time the group didn't meet was 1945, during the final months of World War II. "This was a very extraordinary year for the whole newspaper industry," says Hall, who was ASNE's president until the end of April. "Editors need to be in their newsrooms."
In a further sign of the times, ASNE's members voted April 6 to change the group's name to the American Society of News Editors, dropping "newspaper" from its title.
In Rob Reiner's 1987 classic, "The Princess Bride," a cynical Miracle Max provides an insightful assessment of mortality as he tries to revive the deceased hero:
"Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) : It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there's usually only one thing you can do.
Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) : What's that?
Miracle Max : Go through his clothes and look for loose change."
In the newspaper industry, where loose change is scarce these days, where is the dividing line between mostly dead and all dead? Is the Seattle P-I dead, or slightly alive? Is a newspaper dead when it folds its print edition? When it cuts delivery days? When it slashes staff?
Alan Mutter, a former top editor at the San Francisco Chronicle who now reports on the industry in his Reflections of a Newsosaur blog (newsosaur.blogspot.com), frames the issue of newspaper mortality this way: "It's increasingly unlikely that American cities are going to support two newspapers, so the next question is will they support one newspaper. That's a more complicated question. Is it a newspaper if it goes digital or publishes two days a week?"
During the last week of March, the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, part of a joint operating agreement between Gannett (owner of the Free Press) and MediaNews Group (owner of the News), ended home delivery except on Thursday and Friday for both papers and Sunday for the Free Press the three heaviest advertising days. Thinner versions of the papers can still be purchased daily at convenience stores and newspaper boxes under the new system, which is intended to save money and drive subscribers to continuous coverage on the Internet.
"We're here because we're fighting for our survival," Dave Hunke, then-CEO of the Detroit Media Partnership and publisher of the Free Press, said December 16 in announcing the plan. He said the partnership has an "absolute resolve" to save both papers, "and we are not going to go away... We absolutely believe in daily newspapers and the future of newspapers." (In April, Hunke was named president and publisher of
The Orlando Sentinel's Hall predicts the industry is poised for a revival but not necessarily in the form it has known before.
"As we come out of recession, we'll see an industry in which there's far more sharing of resources than we have had in the past," Hall says. She notes her paper, owned by Tribune Co., and Gannett's Florida Today, a onetime rival, share content, as do South Florida's former fierce foes, the Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel (see "Share and Share Alike," February/March). Last year, eight of Ohio's largest newspapers also agreed to share content.
The widespread sharing will not be limited to journalistic endeavors, Hall says: "Papers are going to be delivering each other; they're going to be printing each other."
She thinks more newspapers may drop some print publishing days, as Monday and Tuesday are traditionally weak advertising days. Some papers might try a super-weekend edition, combining their Friday, Saturday and Sunday offerings, ΰ la USA Today.
Yet these models could further dilute the power and institutional heft of newspapers in major American cities, turning them into occasional visitors on subscribers' doorsteps, ones even less tailored to particular communities and their unique identities than they are right now.
"The most typical scenario is that we will continue to have newspapers in major cities, but they're going to be a good deal smaller and there will be diverse [media] players, some of them that have been around for a while and some of them brand-new," Poynter's Edmonds says. So what would happen to a town if a newspaper dies? "I think a certain amount of that is happening already," he says. "Almost all metro papers have pulled back from their coverage of the more distant suburbs."
How much is lost if a newspaper manages to survive, but dramatic cost-cutting forces it to abdicate much of its coverage of a region, as has happened in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Omaha, Dallas and many other cities? What if a newspaper eliminates nearly half of its journalists, as the Los Angeles Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and others have done over the past few years? The Tribune Co.-owned Baltimore Sun provided a devastating example of staff-slashing in late April, eliminating 61 people in its newsroom about 27 percent of its news staff including senior editors, photographers, designers
What the newspaper industry faces is less imminent death than the specter of being mostly dead, of chopping staff and resources to the point where they sacrifice exactly what makes them so special: their coverage of courthouses and statehouses (see "Statehouse Exodus," April/May), their role dispensing information and facilitating community dialogue, their journalists' time to do basic beat reporting so they can write about issues intelligently.
Until the online startups expand if they do the onus remains on newspapers to dig up and dish out news about their cities. Newspapers are rightly trying to reinvent themselves in order to survive, experimenting with new business models, focusing on the journalistic and commercial possibilities of the Internet and working to meld print and online operations.
For newspapers' survival to matter, though, the core of the new models must remain the same as the old: the dedication to illuminating stories and rich storytelling, the commitment to serving democracy.
If those ideals continue to fray and disappear, the economists who are discovering evidence of newspapers' impact on public life could find sharply different results five years from now.
Rachel Smolkin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the legal affairs editor at USA Today and a former AJR managing editor.