Politics & Media

The Day the Newspaper Died

The demise of the print media industry has been evident for years, but its rapid acceleration in 2008 is still shocking on an emotional level.

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It 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?

None.

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.”

My own teenage sons never soil their hands with newsprint, yet they’re reliably informed about current events, contradicting the condescending view of many of their elders that younger people are somehow not as “smart” today. During the election campaign this past summer and fall, the two of them, one favoring Obama, the other McCain, would squabble incessantly, both armed with facts and opinions they’d gathered online. The arguments were heated, which wasn’t much fun, but at least their respective partisanship didn’t descend to name-calling and insults. And, much to my pleasure they agreed that Sean Hannity, Keith Olbermann, Bill O’Reilly and Chris Matthews were, to a man, jackasses.

Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv, was also ahead of the pack, saying, “I can’t even remember when I realized the Age of Print had passed. It might have been in post-Bicentennial America, when the cheapskate customers on my paper route started telling me to go fuck myself and to take that rag off their porches.” Gillespie added that he hasn’t “smeared newsprint ink” in his eye for a decade now. He continued, “The only thing missing from the online environment is the smell of a used bookstore (which are also finished, done in by a wider and vaster and better selection in cyberspace) and from what I hear, that’s only a couple of years away.

Celia Farber, who was a controversial writer for Bob Guccione Jr.’s Spin in the mid-late 80s—when that magazine was a bracing alternative to the calcified and celebrity-obsessed Rolling Stone—told me that two years ago her father’s Times subscription was cut off after he’d neglected to pay a bill. “He used to spend half the day reading [the Times], then suddenly it lost its power, its centrality, and he didn’t renew.” Additionally, when Farber’s own work was criticized in the Times, after initial dismay, she discovered that few in her circle had even read the offending commentary, and “The earth didn’t change its orbit.” When she complained to a friend who was an editor at the Times, he told her, “Don’t worry about it. It’s just fish wrap.”

The New York Times, described by one of its own as “fish wrap.” A decade ago, even detractors wouldn’t say something like that. “Fish wrap,” or the alternate cliché of “lining a birdcage with a newspaper,” was once reserved for tabloids or any print product owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Finally, I made a bet with a friend last week—just five bucks, a reflection of the economy, I guess—that the Times would be sold by Dec. 31 of next year. It seems reasonable that any mogul who offers Times shareholders a premium on the price of the company’s stock, maybe $30 instead of the current single-digit figure, could break the Sulzberger family’s hold on the institution. The only flaw in my theory, which I still think is basically sound, is that Sam Zell’s nightmare with Tribune Co. has probably scared away vanity buyers—besides, the portfolios of potential individual buyers has, in most cases, taken a severe hit this year—and what other media corporation has the wherewithal to buy the Times?

Maybe Murdoch, who’d no doubt like to merge his Dow Jones Co. with the Times Co., but on the other hand, it’s just as likely the vilified Australian may decide to watch his competition just wither away.

DISCUSSION
  • Go to comment.
    Dec 15, 2008, 04:53AM
    I think the demise of print newspapers is a two-edged sword like anything else: growing up with the internet, I've felt very liberated to get my information from the 6 or so papers whose websites I read daily. Though I don't think the web format is as conducive as the print to what Celia Farber's father did: reading all the news, cover to cover. More choice, but the possibility of less depth. Of course in the age of Zell, depth of coverage is too often a moot point.
  • Go to comment.
    Dec 15, 2008, 05:29AM
    Great article. Though it all makes sense, these changes are still quite frightening.
  • Go to comment.
    Dec 15, 2008, 05:45AM
    My "holy shit" moment came the day after the election, when the Wall Street Journal, put to press too early to cover Obama's victory, had only pre-election speculation on the front headlines. Meanwhile, I could go online, read extensive coverage, and watch video clips of the rallies and both candidates' speeches. I don't think I've read a print newspaper since.
  • Go to comment.
    Dec 15, 2008, 06:18AM
    I hate the idea of a paperless world. Online papers and Kindles don't have the soul and feel of newsprint and books. I suppose I'm a dinosaur.
    Responses to this comment
  • Go to comment.
    Dec 15, 2008, 06:39AM
    The death of "the paper" is not necessarily a bad thing. If your teenage son and presbyopic brother don't want print anymore, why kill trees and burn dollars to keep it alive? The trick is for newspaper companies to figure out ways to move their advertisers to digital, following the readers. Until that happens, news companies will continue to see their print dollars converted to digital dimes and (if they're lucky) quarters.
  • Go to comment.
    Dec 15, 2008, 07:35AM
    Some small amount of hope: People will always need something to read while lunching alone. Not that many people (yet) can meet this need on their cell phones. The free weeklys have a little breathing room still. As far as the big boys, here is an essay by Howard Gossage on the closing of the West Coast Branch of the NYT http://www.ciadvertising.org/student_account/fall_01/adv382j/mgautam/PAPER2/pressbig.jpg
  • Go to comment.
    Dec 15, 2008, 08:05AM
    I'm an old man, admittedly, but I love our L.A. Times, even in its shrunken state. For currency, sometimes I see stories in the Times that don't appear on TV until the evening news. What are we going to train our pets with now? You can't smack Fido with your laptop and you certainly don't want him pooping on it. Yes, a newspaper is somewhat unwieldy, but it sits nicely on the stovetop while I hover over it with my coffee. It's very easy to select what to read and what to skip. Ir you're looking for underwear ads, they're right there in Section A. If you want the bad news, it's there, too. But it's easy to skip both and find the sports and funnies (OK, comics). And yes, I have to wash my hands after reading it, but I can't picture sitting on the throne holding a laptop. (You probably don't want to picture that, either.) Oh, dear, I am converting myself. I guess I can picture myself in that exalted spot with an iPhone. Saints preserve us.
  • Go to comment.
    Dec 15, 2008, 08:18AM
    I understand the significance of the fall of newspapers, but I still don't see it as a bad thing. I can't help but view the internet as just a paperless, more convenient version of newspapers. Pillowtalk's arguments are the ones I hear most often: "Online papers and Kindles don't have the soul and feel of newsprint and books." What does that mean? When the Washington Post puts its articles online, how are they any different (apart from paperless and more convenient) then when they are held in your hand? People say obscure things like "There's just nothing quite like picking up a newspaper and reading it front to back."
  • Go to comment.
    Dec 15, 2008, 09:06AM
    Good article. The real problem with newspapers is that they are no longer current. By the time you get one, the news is old. As for books, I'm not so sure they will go in the same direction. They are still easier to read and travel with than the computer equivolent
  • Go to comment.
    Dec 15, 2008, 09:48AM
    I will have a subscription to the local paper. But it is just out of habit. You are right. I could read much more online than if I subscribe to a single paper. But is there a business model for the newspapers to thrive as online media?
  • Go to comment.
    Dec 15, 2008, 10:16AM
    oprah says: i think that a book can have a soul. okay, oprah didn't really say that. well, she might have, but my point is that when you're done reading a book, it becomes something more than bound paper. it becomes a physical manifestation of the book's content, or of the reader's perception of the book. as for newspapers having a soul, i suppose it's possible, but, really, a newspaper's main job is to deliver news. after a few days, news is usually dead, or at least old and devalued.
  • Go to comment.
    Dec 15, 2008, 04:53PM
    I am surprised your "oh-shit" moment came so late. Perhaps if the print media would have gotten "it" sooner, they could have done something. Denial isn't just a rivier in Egypt... Nice article though - glad I don't have to depend on the paper to see it - 'cause it wouldn't have seen the light of day...which is pretty much the point now - isn't it!
  • Go to comment.
    Dec 15, 2008, 07:16PM
    What bothers me about discussions on the end of newspapers is that the real point is the end of journalism as newspapers do it. The medium isn't that important, though I admit to a deep personal romance with newsprint; I spent nearly 20 years as a newspaper journalist, my father's career was in newspapers in their glory days, the newspaper makes me happy, absolutely. But it's not the newspaper I fear losing; it is newspaper gum-shoe, investigative, watchdog journalism. The NY Times and other papers haven't found a viable way to stay afloat online. They do work that TV doesn't. So much of the news we read online is reported and posted by newspapers. Important news from Watergate to the recent exposure of the Detroit mayor's corruption scandal was brought to us by newspaper journalists. We need keep that work alive and well, paper be damned.
  • Go to comment.
    Dec 15, 2008, 08:24PM
    Good grief – this reporter doesn’t know what the heck happened to newspapers – it's the technology stupid. I am 61 years old and read the news on my htc Windows based cell phone – I have a full browser and bank, shop, conduct business, and read my news from the thing. I can be anywhere in the USA and do this and not a single old-growth tree must fall to the ground. Plus I don’t read anything unless I get to comment back to the block-head reporters who seem to be stuck in 1950 when I watched Howdy Doody on the black and white TV and learned how to speak English. It sure doesn’t help the newspapers that they decided to cut their readership in half by supporting primarily democrats – Obama this, Obama that 24/7 makes me sick. You guys mixed news with opinion and that killed you too. Good riddens to bad rubbish...
  • Go to comment.
    Dec 16, 2008, 12:20AM
    Online, I read more breadth and more depth, and find higher quality opinions and more primary documents than I ever could in print w/out the resources of a major university, and I most certainly read online while sitting on the toilet and over breakfast in the morning. Print media (and TV for that matter) depends on the silly prejudices of past generations. Those publications who cannot radically adapt will die. The old think what is true is physical, in their face, and depend on brands name shortcuts for quality. This isn't particularly democratic, not that democracy always leads to the truth. One big advance I think old media doesn't get: SEARCH. Search is available to everyone on a massive scale. Any media that can be searched is significantly more useful than media that cannot. Add to that that internet media is accessible almost anywhere you are, and nearly infinitely cross-linked, and so is better in that it is more reliable (if not better researched, can be more quickly verified as such), and lasting. Most complaints I hear about digital media are made by people who haven't figured out how to use it, or who just grossly misunderstand it as a result of their stubborn immunity to reason. The sort of people who read the NYT online the same way they would read it in print, or read a blog the way they would would read the NYT...
    Responses to this comment
  • Go to comment.
    Dec 16, 2008, 05:37AM
    I remember about five years ago arguing with a friend that print would never die. I now read 95% of my news online and I only buy a paper if I'm taking a long subway ride. I always end up surrendering to technology (I'm the brainiac that declared the compact disc would never take off, years ago), but there are times I don't feel good about it. And seeing the words, "fish wrap," definitely makes me feel nostalgic!
  • Go to comment.
    Dec 16, 2008, 09:20AM
    Print is finished, but mjt is missing a crucial element when he/she talks about the SEARCH option. When you Google something, more often than not a daily newspaper's story shows up. So when print disappears, and probably some online versions of daily newspapers too, the "breadth" and "depth" will disappear online too, unless the popular websites invest in staff that does actually reporting rather than blathering.
  • Go to comment.
    Dec 16, 2008, 10:21AM
    True. That is why there is an imminent need for the newspapers to adapt. And to find a good business model online to sustain.
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