News on the Rocks
The P-I is a Hearst-owned paper, and the company's desire to sell off select publications has fallen on deaf ears, hence the settlement in Seattle and the rumors that a similar fate, or perhaps the closure, of San Francisco's only major daily, the Chronicle, leaving the City by the Bay, America's 14th largest market, without a hometown broadsheet. True, one can travel across the bay and read the Oakland Tribune, or head south to San Jose to peruse the Mercury-News, but for this famously activist town to go without a major daily periodical is nothing less than alarming.
The jointly operated Detroit Daily News and Free-Press have suspended suburban delivery with the exception of a few days a week, and these papers and the industry as a whole has been decimated by the failing auto industry, which previously accounted for a strong plurality of advertising revenue.
Closer to home, the Chicago Sun-Times has been fading for years, sacrificing content for advertising, and feeling more and more like the derogatory term that defines its published piece: a tabloid. The Tribune is in the middle of bankruptcy and has shed significant staff in its effort to "rightsize." It has adopted a tabloid form itself, at least for newsstand sales, paring down content and embracing more advertising at the same time it drifts away and dries up.
Those of us who wax nostalgic about the newspapers of old are saddened by the daily unraveling of an industry so near and dear to our hearts, and we lament the loss of jobs by those scribes who have dedicated their lives to keeping us informed and holding our elected officials accountable.
Beyond these first-order effects, however, the biggest loser is our democracy itself. How are we, the people, to govern when the individuals who shed light on corruption are standing in an unemployment line? Who will facilitate an issues-oriented debate where we are exposed to a plethora of opinions on an editorial page now extinct, as we retreat to echo chambers on the Internet or cable television? What will take the place of investigative journalists who unveiled the pathetic conditions at Walter Reed Hospital, or Operation Silver Shovel?
These are questions without immediate answers. Perhaps finding a way to make online journalism profitable through advertising and/ or user fees is a partial solution, or endowing newspapers and running them as non-profits from this point forward. New media anchored niche publications like Politico may lead the way, along with MinnPost on a smaller scale. Pro Publica is attempting to focus solely on quality investigative journalism, the most expensive and labor intensive part of the craft, but arguably the most essential to democracy.
Let the experimentation continue, and ideas surface that meet the newsgathering needs of our time. There is no time for careful deliberation, for last week it was the Rocky Mountain News, today it is the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and tomorrow it might be your major daily.