Newspapers seem more on their way out than ever; with fewer freebies for news a new demand might be created

September 9, 2010

With the news that the publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger, acknowledged that the newspaper of record for the United States will eventually go out of print and be completely replaced by the online edition it seems to me those of us who have loved reading actual paper newspapers have to accept that they are going the way of the horse and buggy.

(I just read about his comments in the Huffington Post, an online-only newspaper. Some cruel irony there, I guess.)

Add to this the recent news that the Oxford Standard Dictionary will no longer be put out in a book form, and add to this that, as I understand it, textbook sales are down because schools use computers a lot, and add to that the fact Amazon sells more e-books than regular books (I think I read that) and it seems that we may lose the medium of the physically printed word, although we still can read words on the computer screen or on other electronic devices that I am not acquainted with.

Along these same lines, I miss real letters. Of course I never write any. I recently heard that those born after 1990 consider e-mail a slow form of communication — they’re all into things like Facebook and Twitter (both of which I have never used). I sent my granddaughter an e-mail the other day and wondered why she had not answered it, but her mother tells me that she does not get around to all her e-mails as much anymore because she’s all into the social networking sites.

It seems as if the only future for real paper newspapers is on the local level, the community newspaper level, although I am not sure there is even much of a future there.

The citizens of the community of Bell in Los Angeles County found out they were being ripped off by their city government, with the city manager pulling down some $800,000 per year, and bloated pay going to other officials and city council members as well. They were also being illegally taxed. They only found this out through the reporting of the LA Times newspaper. I don’t know if Bell has its own community newspaper or not. But without traditional investigative newspaper type reporting scandals like this stay hidden. Some entity has to be willing to pay reporters for digging with no quick return on profits (although in the long run the value of such efforts can bring a news organization profit).


As an aside, I should add that no offense to Bell, but to an outsider like me who only drives through and picks up freight there from time to time, it is an indistinguishable part of the LA concrete jungle that surrounds LA proper.


My main concern is that there be a reliable medium for straight news that will have the resources and the concern by those who run it to gather and report news in a quality and timely manner. It has always been a problem on the local level for a variety of reasons. One is that local newspapers are often staffed by beginners or to be painfully honest by those who may not quite be up to snuff for the big time. And I do not mean to libel or slander those hard-working souls and what I just wrote is not always the case anyway. I once labored in the small time. I did my best. I did not really make much of an effort to make it into the big time — probably spent too much time trying to just get away from small time journalism into something else entirely. We all have our own life stories and needs and aspirations (and we all make mistakes).

Another problem is that small newspapers often do not have the revenue to support a dynamic news gathering and reporting effort. And that has become a problem for the larger newspapers as well, having lost ad revenue to other mediums, such as the internet. And then there is lack of interest. For some reason, local reporting in many places just does not draw the interest as it might have at one time. So many people live lives disconnected with the communities in which they live that there just is not the potential readership available.

But it is not just local reporting I am concerned about. I have written this before, but I say again, newspapers have been the foundation of the whole news gathering effort. They got much of their regional and national and international news from what at least used to be called news wire services. Reporters trained as newspapermen gathered news and it was shared with membership papers. In the case of the Associated Press (AP) member newspapers would share their own generated stories with each other. Broadcast news, radio and television, originally recruited its news reporters from the print world.

While television largely took the lead in reporting the news, with its advantage of immediacy and live pictures, what a lot of people outside the news business may not have realized is that TV (and radio) was getting a large portion of its material from the newspapers and wire services. I worked for a short time at a small radio station. We got the local newspaper each day so we could find out what the news was. We did do our own reporting, but we used the newspapers and its resources, limited as they were (I know, I used to work for it too) as the basis for our (several) daily local news reports.

The internet has come along with a whole host of sites, many of which are really news commentary but many of which are straight news. They call them news aggregators. They get their material from other news sources, including newspapers and wire services. I have always wondered what they will do when all the real news gathering mediums go out of business. I did read that some of these sites are now recruiting their own news gathering staffs — I guess this is the evolution of the news business.

There has always been a split in the news business between those dedicated to actually gathering and reporting news and those dedicated solely or at least more to simply making money by selling advertising, for, except in a limited fashion, no one has come up with a business model in which people will actually pay for news (newsstand or subscription prices only offset, but do not actually pay the costs or allow for profit). But with the New York Times hinting it may eventually abandon its print edition and with it in fact promising to put up a pay wall so there are fewer to no freebies on the internet, I could see a market or a created demand for news, maybe.