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Death of Newspapers?

March 17, 2009

newspapers31As I noted in an earlier post the disappearance of newspapers often means corruption increases. What wasn’t addressed in that post is the grand kibbitz going on now: What did the newspapers in?

Conventional wisdom has the Internet as its culprit, but that’s simplistic and naive. Long before the Internet was making inroads into the newspapers’ market share, newspaper owners got giddy over who could cut costs faster. If you have a chance to speak with a Vietnam-era foreign correspondent, ask them about well-staffed foreign bureaus, per diem pay, and corporate accounts. I’m not saying those journalists were living large, but what passes for a foreign bureau now is risible compared with its predecessor.

And it wasn’t only foreign bureaus. After the glory days of American investigative journalism, newspapers began cutting their investigative staff as well, and in a race to see who could garner the largest quarterly profits, newspaper owners cut time and again, and now they’re gobsmacked that nothing’s left.

Any newspaper in the country that depends on wire services for stories on New York and D.C., but just laid off its local sports reporter is a paper destined to fail. Just as all politics is local, in the end, all news is as well.  As tiring as it is to see so many blaming technology, it’s nice that there’s at least one industry insider who gets it. I suspect there are many, many more who decided to stay silent trying to preserve their positions.

But here’s a taste of what columnist Bill Virgin has to say on the last day of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. While I disagree with his contention of how newspapers drove away conservatives, the bulk of his argument is sound:

 … Or at least newspapers did until they began lopping away content and features readers had come to expect. The rationale the industry used was that readers could and would get that information elsewhere, especially online, so why waste valuable print real estate on them? But the message readers got from the newspapers was they ought to go elsewhere for TV listings, stock quotes and the like. Surprisingly enough, readers took the advice and did.

(snip)

Until now. In business there is a phenomenon known as the death spiral, in which the measures intended to rescue a company or industry not only fail to stem the losses, they actually accelerate the decline. In the case of newspapers, the loss of readers and advertisers led to cuts in content and features and greater irrelevancy, which led to more lost readers and advertisers, which led to still more cuts, which led to …

As he says, where we are today.

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