AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2009

Fears for the Future   

June/July preview» Who will pay for the nation’s newsgathering efforts?

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

It suddenly reached critical mass.

All at once, you couldn't go anywhere without somebody talking about the perilous state of America's newspapers.

Sen. John Kerry convened Congressional hearings in early May on the dire plight of the beleaguered broadsheets and tabs and what it portended for democracy. At the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner just a few days later, President Barack Obama offered his support to the struggling industry. Inevitably, panel discussions on what to do about the journalism crisis broke out all over the place. One Sunday, Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd both weighed in on the subject on the New York Times op-ed pages. And speaking of the Times, people began to contemplate the possibility of a world without it, at least in its present incarnation.

Even at my niece's bat mitzvah, a devoted news junkie told me of her fears for the future of news and of her willingness, even eagerness, to pay for quality journalism.

Why all the angst? The decline of print journalism is hardly a late-breaking development. Readers and advertisers have been gravitating Webward for years. But the potent one-two punch of transformational change and a major economic recession has made the unthinkable utterly thinkable. The sums that some of our top newspapers are losing are truly staggering – and frightening.

The Washington Post Co.'s newspaper division – that would be pretty much the Post – lost $53.8 million in the first quarter of the year. The New York Times Co. lost $74.5 million in the same quarter. When the Times Co. numbers came out, the much-quoted media analyst Ed Atorino said, "It's clear from these results that it's a very, very bad environment for newspapers." He may be onto something.

But how much of this bad news is permanent (thanks to the massive restructuring of journalism) and how much is temporary (thanks to the recession)? Newspaper mogul Dean Singleton, chairman of MediaNews Group, doesn't think media analysts are doing a very good job of separating the two, and as a result are overstating the long-term gloom and doom. "I'm still very confident that the newspaper industry will not only survive but will thrive over time," Singleton said in an interview with Michael Roberts of Westword, a Denver alternative weekly. "In a bit of a different model, but it still will. And I think the print newspaper will thrive over time."

There's also much wisdom in this recent Facebook status update from USC J-school Director Geneva Overholser: "Assured pronouncements about journalism's future resemble health news: Say what you will today; in 6 months, the opposite will be gospel."

Nevertheless, even the most optimistic newspaper booster would have to concede the severity of the challenge. While some of the ad revenue lost in the recession will return, a lot of it won't. And in a particularly ominous sign, newspapers' online ad money has started to decline.

Already, the damage to America's newsgathering capacity has been severe. In AJR's April/May issue, Managing Editor Jennifer Dorroh reported that the number of newspaper reporters covering the nation's statehouses had declined by more than 30 percent in just six years, a stunning drop. The wholesale shedding of reporters by revenue-strapped news organizations has been widely documented, as has the decimation of the lineup of foreign correspondents.

The extent of the carnage has greatly diminished the ability of many news outlets to give readers the information they need as citizens in a democracy. As Rachel Smolkin writes in "Cities Without Newspapers" in the June/July issue of AJR, "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.."

The flip side, of course, is all of the richness that online has added to the mix. The blogosphere, citizen journalism, online startups covering local news and state news and foreign news – all are important ingredients of the national media gumbo. But at this point they are complementary, not replacements for newspapers. The startups, for example, have staffs far, far smaller than even the depleted ones of old-school news outlets.

So the vexing question remains: Who will pay for the large armies of journalists so important to unearthing critical information in a democracy? Nonprofit-funded journalism is on the rise, and in recent months the notion of charging for online content, long considered a nonstarter, has crept into vogue. Maybe that has some promise. But past efforts to charge don't offer much encouragement. Putting content behind a pay wall means a smaller online audience and a smaller pot of online ad revenue, which until recently was depicted as journalism's savior.

If we're headed down that route, let's hope things work out better this time.