The Day the Newspaper Died

Russ Smith – Splice Today

Copyright Splice Today
t was on Election Day, just six weeks ago, that I experienced the wistful, emotional sucker punch, a “holy shit!” moment if you will, that’s not uncommon among lifelong journalists of my age (53), realizing that the print media business was finished. I was in Manhattan, visiting two of my older brothers, and during lunch one of them volunteered that he no longer reads newsprint copies of The New York Times and Wall Street Journal more than two or three times a week. This was significant for a couple of reasons: one, my brother has religiously devoured both papers since the late 1950s, but now receives news on the three computers in his office, the “scroll” that Bloomberg provides along with prices of securities, bonds and stocks; two, if an older, male reader is falling by the wayside, what hope does the industry have?
In the past several years, I’ve told younger colleagues that print media—and if newspapers were the story of ’08, watch as glossy magazines either fold or shrink in page count by the second quarter of next year—as we’ve known it is becoming largely extinct for the simple reason that every day another consumer dies has been lost and isn’t replaced by a person just born. When I was a kid living on Long Island, my dad used to joke at breakfast, with newspapers strewn on the kitchen table, that if you wanted to know what Times icon James Reston’s latest opinion was, simply read the first and last paragraphs of his column. My mother, nose buried in the Daily News or Herald Tribune, would chuckle, as I methodically went through the funnies and sports pages, and then we’d all continue reading until it was time to catch the school bus or go to work. That memory is now as quaint as a Norman Rockwell cover illustration for the Saturday Evening Post or an Esquire treatment by George Lois.
Objectively, everyone in the business has known for several years that a tectonic change in the media world was rapidly unfolding, a process that has greatly accelerated in 2008, and most recently punctuated by Tribune Co.’s filing for bankruptcy, the Detroit Free Press’ announcement of its impending cessation of home delivery on most days, and the daily drumbeat of layoffs, buyouts and firings that are so ubiquitous that the news has all the drama of, say, the results of an NBA game.
It’s not just daily newspapers: weeklies, once known as “alternatives,” since they provided information, listings, arts criticism and the kind of long-form feature writing that the large-circulation dailies either couldn’t or wouldn’t, are in real trouble as well. Last month, when Creative Loafing Inc., a crummy mini-chain of weeklies filed for bankruptcy protection, it was likely the first major sign of serious deterioration in that print niche. The company, over-reaching, bought the Chicago Reader and Washington City Paper (disclosure: I started City Paper in 1981 and subsequently sold it in ‘87) last year and have since, through incompetence or hubris, damaged both properties, probably irreparably.
I’ve thought a lot about this, on a visceral level, since that day in New York in early November, wondering when other friends and acquaintances in the profession had the sudden flash that print was down for the count. (Not incidentally, on the Amtrak ride from Baltimore to Manhattan and back, while the vast majority of passengers were working on laptops, I wasn’t reading a newspaper, but rather re-visiting Dickens’ Great Expectations for the third or fourth time.) Michael Wolff, author of the outstanding new biography of Rupert Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News, told me his moment came, “When I realized The New York Times was probably not going to make it, I knew the newspaper business, as we know it, was over.”
Tom Bevan, co-founder of Real Clear Politics and a resident of the Chicago metro area, also had his gut-level epiphany recently. Like others, Bevan’s followed the downward trend of print media—“disastrous earnings reports, layoffs and the like”—but told me last weekend that it was a month ago that he realized, once and for all that “newspapers are dinosaurs and this is their ice age.” He continued: “A couple of weeks ago I saw a report from Reuters that the Sun-Times media group… has a market cap of $5.4 million. I just checked this morning [Dec. 13], and its market cap is $4.1 million. The stock is now worth a nickel a share… It was shocking to see that you could buy a major American daily and all of its assets for roughly the same price as a three-bedroom condo in the new Trump Tower.”
Others came to the realization earlier than me. Kurt Andersen, a journalist, author and entrepreneur in Manhattan since the mid-1970s, said, “‘All newspapers are kind of fucked,’ I told an NYU journalism class almost four years ago. The doom probably became undeniably clear when I saw that my extremely intelligent, good-grade-receiving, high-scoring teenage daughters had no inclination to read the read the physical newspapers that are delivered to our house every day.”…
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