Politics & Media
Aug 12, 2009, 07:38AM

Five Key Reasons Why Newspapers Are Failing

…and why they don’t get talked about much.

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Photo by Moon Rhythm

Journalists are pretty good at working the scene of a disaster. They’ll tell you what happened, who did it, and why.

But when it comes to the disaster engulfing their own profession, their analysis is less rigorous. An uncharacteristic haze characterizes a lot of the reporting and commentary on the current crisis of the industry.

It could have been brought on by delicacy, perhaps romanticism. And since it is not just any crisis, but a definitive one—one that seems to mean an end to the physical papers’ role in American life as we have come to know it—perhaps there’s a little bit of shell-shock in the mix as well.

Whatever the reasons, I can think of five key aspects of the industry collapse that don’t get talked about much.

Most of my perspective on the daily newspaper industry comes as a critic, generally safely ensconced in the alternative press, blithely taking for granted the local papers’ triumphs and charting their mistakes and oversights. Along the way I’ve tried both to remember and acknowledge that this was easy work; coming down after the battle, as the saying goes, and shooting the wounded.

That said, I’ve also spent a fair amount of time at dailies. I worked my way through college as a reporter at a local daily—and watched as the family-owned chain it was part of founder and finally shutter during my senior year. I’ve freelanced, off and on, for dailies, and spent a year on staff at one, too. And I’ve worked as an editor at institutions emblematic of the New Media and the Old.

The issues I delineate below I think are by far the central, salient facts about the vaporization of the daily newspaper industry. But too often they are elided or ignored. After 30 years in the industry, I know enough to know I don’t know what it should be doing. But if we’re talking about the state of the industry, and we’re not acknowledging the issues below, we’re not fully looking at the roots of the problem.

And if the media doesn’t understand the issues that have actually put it into the precarious position it’s in, how can it survive?

1. Consumers don’t pay for news. They have never paid for news.

The problem of the daily press in the U.S. is exclusively this: the collapse of its business model. That model used to be, plainly put, making money—a lot of money, oceans of money—delivering advertising on newsprint into peoples’ homes. Subscribers didn’t pay for news. Advertisers did.

Remember “shoppers,” the poorly designed throwaway publications filled with tacky little ads? Daily newspapers are high-end shoppers. They spent a lot of money on original content to class up the operation and give people a reason to ask for the ads to be delivered. Long before the web displayed the power and leverage of critical mass, newspapers benefited from it; once you got the franchise in your particular locale, you tried not to stir up trouble, because it just distracted you from time better spent cashing checks.

Some people liked the news, sure; most thought they were paying for it. And some papers spent more money on news than they had to. But the papers weren’t selling the news. They were selling ads and charging a lot of money for them because of one thing only: They held an informal monopoly on a societal convention whereby they deposited those ads—around which they wrapped some reporting, some of it serious, some of it fluff—on subscribers’ driveways.

That the model was going to change was obvious for many decades; even before the Internet age, papers saw their readership grow older, year by year, as longtime subscribers died and weren’t replaced by new, younger ones. This should have prompted rethinking and change—but it didn’t, really. Why? Because of a quirk in the way the newspaper industry was viewed by investors prevented that. Wall Street’s implacable demand for increased returns—ever-improving returns on a traditional net of 20 percent or more—which the papers and their parent companies focused on to the detriment of evolution.

Now, the papers could have used the money they were making to, in essence, buy the future of communications. Instead, they used it for something else: pleasing Wall Street, and consolidation. As the parent companies took on more debt, those fabulous returns became not just money to swim around in, but the essential component of the companies’ day-to-day livelihood—from the perspective of the boardroom, at least.

In other words, the papers were taking their profits and investing in a future not of technological change and institutional challenges, but one defined only by the search for more profits.

What could possibly have gone wrong? As I said, I’ve mostly been a press critic, looking at papers from the outside, a post from which it’s easy to assign dark motives. So don’t take my word for it. Here’s Jim Squires, who, as an editor of The Chicago Tribune in the 1990s, got an up-close view of the workings of the Tribune Company:

During the 1980s, the Chicago Tribune, the Orlando Sentinel and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel were the workhorse profit-makers of the Tribune Company. Sometimes the Tribune alone contributed 30 percent to 50 percent of the company's total profits as the broadcast and newsprint holdings faltered. During the last half of the decade, these newspapers were consistently in the 25 percent to 35 percent range in operating income—profits before depreciation and taxes.
Yet year after year plans for significant editorial investment and circulation promotion to expand their markets and enhance survival were restricted or postponed so the big earnings could fall to the bottom line.

My emphasis. (More on how they did it in a bit.) Few paid attention to Squires’ prescient and merciless analysis in his memoir, Read All About It!, when it came out in 1993.  

(Tribune was then a fabulously disciplined operation, and not entirely clueless; it even bought a small early stake in AOL. But it later bought Times Mirror Co. and got stuck with an unforeseen $1 billion tax bill. Oops. It is now controlled, of course, by Sam Zell, who put the company $11 billion in debt for the privilege of being controlled by Sam Zell.)

It’s shocking that a fundamental lack of understanding of these aspects of the business has been the basis of some of the most high-profile writing about the state of the industry. Walter Isaacson was the managing editor of Time and the CEO of CNN; in a recent cover story for Time on the daily newspaper crisis, he based his argument on the following assertion:

Newspapers and magazines traditionally have had three revenue sources: newsstand sales, subscriptions, and advertising. The new business model [i.e., web publishing] relies only on the last of these. That makes for a wobbly stool even when the one leg is strong. When it weakens, the stool is likely to fall.
Isaacson didn’t provide any figures. It didn’t occur to him or any of those high-paid Time editors who shepherded his essay into print that the money generated by newspaper subscriptions—$5 or $6 a week in most cities—could hardly be called a leg on a stool.

Think about it for a moment, and you realize those paltry sums couldn’t come close to making up the cost of merely printing a newspaper and then delivering it by hand to a subscriber’s doorstep seven times during each of those weeks.

Nor can a company make money in 50-cent increments by sending union employees out in gas-guzzling trucks through gridlocked streets several times a day distributing to hundreds, even thousands, of newspaper boxes over scores, perhaps hundreds, of square miles.

That issue of Time was still on newsstands when the editor of The San Francisco Chronicle, which had been losing $1 million a week for years before the current recession hit, was telling his readers that it cost the company $10—10 dollars—to deliver a Sunday Chronicle to their homes.

He didn’t explain his math, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. And let’s say that the smaller average weekday paper costs less, maybe $6, to print and deliver. In other words, if we can trust his figures, it might cost the Chron at least $45 a week just to print and deliver a single subscriber’s paper. The paper is currently offering eight weeks’ delivery to new subscribers for just under $8 a week.

Back to Time magazine. Isaacson’s logic took him to this assertion:

In an advertising-only revenue model, the incentive is perverse. It is also self-defeating, because eventually you will weaken your bond with your readers if you do not feel directly dependent upon them for your revenue. Newspapers will end up producing a lot of sections about gardening and home improvement, which advertisers want, and getting rid of their book review sections, as the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post have done.
Isaacson, thinking he was offering an analysis of the current business situation of newspapers, was actually describing the previous one. Didn’t newspapers “end up producing” sections about gardening and home improvement decades ago? As for those book review sections, they were gone as well; the ones he mentioned were about the last two remaining of the 1400 daily papers in the U.S. In other words, that “bond with readers,” financially speaking, Isaacson talked about never existed.

It was sacrificed to Wall Street. Those book review sections were early roadkill in the companies’ drive to cut back content and prop up the industry’s comically high returns.

Leaving aside the go-go Internet years, newspaper staffs have grown ineluctably smaller for decades. Beats became consolidated; feature writers and anyone else on staff who wrote longer-form pieces or offered more in-depth reporting were slowly culled from papers. The amount of space apportioned to actual journalism—the “newshole,” in industry parlance—tightened; the type got smaller; designs became cramped.

Listings shrank to agate type and became less comprehensive long before the Internet came along. Comics—once an entry point for kids—shrank, shrank some more, and then shrank again. And then everything got even tinier! One by one, virtually very daily in America made itself physically smaller, reducing the dimensions of its printed page—down to 12 inches, say, from 14. The editor’s notes accompanying the changes assured readers the shrinkage wouldn’t affect the paper’s coverage. (Intellectual honesty was another thing that was cut.)

Now, of course there were exceptions and other ameliorative forces at work. For one thing, it’s not often noted that the big-bad media consolidators of the 1970s and 80s, while unquestionably lackadaisical about actual journalism (hello, USA Today!), also made a lot of crummy papers in smaller cities better.

Still, overall, papers kept cutting to meet financial targets.

Anyway, none of this mattered, because the advertisers kept paying the papers a lot of money, because the papers were good at the business they were really in, which was putting ads, printed on newsprint, on folks’ doorsteps. Now, news organizations might find they can create a different business model on the web. I hope they do.

But let’s be honest about how different it’s going to be. The New York Times Magazine just printed a very long feature about the state of journalism in Philadelphia. It wasn’t an upbeat portrait, of course, but the owner of the town’s two papers, Brian Tierney, was allowed a lot of space to ululate about “the public trust” (without it being noticed that trust was not the business The Philadelphia Inquirer had been in) and contend that the papers were making an operating profit outside of their debt obligations. (Even if that were true, which I can’t imagine, the fact remains that circulation, and advertising income, is going to continue to fall.)

He was never clearly asked: What does he plan to sell that remotely approximates the monopoly on that strange industry—slapping ads on newsprint and delivering them to peoples’ houses in the early morning hours—the paper used to have? The story never said this: The value the companies added to the print ads was their de facto hegemony over home delivery. It didn’t say that that hegemony doesn’t exist online. And the value of that hegemony is gone forever.

One other change. The papers adopted new design formats that put bigger art and more white space into layouts—the layouts in those smaller newsholes. Design directors could be seen describing the new look by the use of little hand gestures dispersing imaginary puffs of air onto the pages. Air instead of content. Newspapers had struck upon a goldmine previously known only to purveyors of bread, popcorn, and ice cream. After all, where else could the readers go?

2. Newspapers are the product of monopolist thinking

The paradigmatic American newspaper, once its competition had been eliminated, settled down into a comfortable monopoly position in most cities; sometimes there was another paper around, but in most places one newspaper stood dominant and took home most of the ads, not to mention the money.

These monopoly positions created a dynamic by which the only thing a paper could do wrong was to offend or, God forbid, lose a reader. The prospect of offending readers, or having subscriptions canceled, penetrated deep into papers and became a comic cliché, famously satirized by Berkeley Breathed.

I freelanced at one point for a fairly famous U.S. paper, one whose parent company is currently in bankruptcy proceedings; among other things I did pop-concert reviews for a “Overnight” page.

(Instead of having enough printing presses to print an entire paper overnight, most papers print some sections early the previous day, as this one did; the reviews that hit subscribers’ doorsteps on a given morning were therefore actually from two evenings previous, but never mind: “Overnight” it was.)

The editor of the page told me, quite explicitly that pans were not allowed. She didn’t want readers to see something unflattering about their favorite artist over breakfast. That’s anecdotal, but I’ve got a lot of anecdotes like that, and the pervasiveness of this attitude has been obvious in papers for decades. The New York Times does better work than most papers, but even it is not immune. One of its managing editors, Jill Abramson, just began a weekly series on her adoption of a new puppy.

Now, all of this is an intelligent tack for papers to take in the short term, given their business model. I disagree with it professionally, but I don’t mean to criticize it. I just want to make the case that it exists. The commentators most caught up in the romanticized notion of newspaper cite the potential loss of the newspapers’ “watchdog” function. Let’s be honest. Most newspapers in the U.S. aren’t watchdogs, and most of the rest don’t spend an inordinate amount of time being watchdogs. Most papers are instead lapdogs, and the metaphorical lap they sit in isn’t even that of powerful interests like their advertisers. (Though they definitely have their moments.)

The real tyrant the papers served was the tender sensibilities of their readers.

Did some critics write negative reviews? Of course. Did some local papers do occasional good work, embarrass a public official now and again, tell its readers things they didn’t want to hear? Yes. Did they also provide some useful health news, give some ink to deserving local art or cultural endeavors? Yes to that as well.

Now, the national daily newspaper industry is so broad in the U.S. that, with selective citing, you can make just about any case for or against it. But me, I’ve lived in five major American cities and, as I said, often either written on the media or oversaw my organization’s media coverage, so I feel that I can claim some confidence in my impressions.

So, sure, an average newspaper did print some serious journalism. But is that most of what they did, or even anything more than a tiny part? Did newspapers crusade from early in the morning to late at night to right wrongs? Did the typical reporter spend the majority of her or her time ferreting out information that the local powers-that-be kept hidden? Did their critics focus a gimlet eye on all manner or art and pop culture, shoot from the hip, provoke dialogs about its meaning and import? Did the papers really afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted? Did each department, each day, have at least one story that took an extra step to find out some information that others didn’t want public, that didn’t come from a press release or a government official, that didn’t merely repeat warmed-over developments that had happened the day before?

No on all counts. My experience lies more with arts and features; I’d guess that the average paper’s coverage of arts and entertainment, for example, runs at least 80-plus percent promotional (meaning that it was “coverage” tied to the release of some product), with the remainder split between the rare other-than-upbeat critical review and some fairly minuscule percentage of actual original reporting.

I once analyzed two weeks of the arts and features sections of a well-known American newspaper and found exactly one feature published over that period that contained original reporting. Even good papers’ arts coverage is largely promotional; look at the cute little features that dot the inside of The Wall Street Journal’s Friday feature section; it offers pages of fluff, each bit of it pegged to some product release. Even a top-tier critic like Joe Morgenstern will fill out his columns with random little plugs for new DVDs—with no information about special features, say, or the quality of the restoration of a classic film. Whose interest, other than that of the home video departments of the movie studios, do those squibs serve?

When extolling their own benefits to society, newspapers and their partisans will point to the work of the Journal, or The New York Times, Washington Post or Los Angeles Times. That’s exactly four papers out of about 1500. Asked to cite their own achievements, they will point to this or that story from the past year that made a splash, or a big investigative series. Why, they even thought it worthy of being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize! Ask them to cite some examples from that day, however, or that week, or even that month, and the person will struggle.

Now, again, my point isn’t really to bash the papers for this failing, though they deserve to be. The point is a slightly extended one: This timidity is a product of a tendency inside papers that has essentially become genetic. The tendency is doubly sad when one considers the resources available. A typical newspaper, 10 or 20 years ago, was a vast operation, with deputies to the top editor holding enormous sway over their respective armies. There was plenty of staff there to make an impact, every week, every day.

But the power, helped along both by a need to fill those lucrative ad-based sections and that concern not to shake the boat, was inevitably diffused: Home & Garden, Living, Food, Escapes, whatever. The Sunday travel section, Monday Health page, the Tuesday home section, the Wednesday dining insert, the Thursday Buyer’s guide, the movie coverage on Friday, the faith section on Saturday.

All nice, all largely promotional, all inoffensive… all a drain on resources, and all an excuse not to do something harder, more… watchdog-like.

Each of those features, you will note, were imagined to provide some supposedly cherished service to readers but most were there to make money. (Sports and business were obvious exceptions, though as we’ve seen, the amount the paper earned from subscriptions from sports and business enthusiasts couldn’t come close to paying for the cost of the coverage.)

And some of it was useful to readers. But let’s be honest. It wasn’t the information the republic needs to govern itself. A very large percentage of it was based, one way or another, on information from press releases, either physical or de facto, from organizations with products to sell.

Press releases contain dated information, the release of which is valuable only to the companies involved; in most cases, they’d actually pay to advertise it, and in that sense it has a negative news value. But vast swaths of a typical American daily is filled with news whose primary source is a press release of one form or another, from entities governmental, political, or corporate. It was part of an unspoken but implicit agreement the papers had with advertisers—that the vast majority of what the paper printed would be complementary with the advertising. (It would be complimentary too, of course.)

So a large part of what we called “newsgathering” was basically providing additional promotional coverage for its advertisers. That’s what the advertisers were paying for.

One of the things the digital convergence is doing is exposing that fact. Newspapers have to understand that the value that they could as a consequence offer to advertisers just doesn’t exist any more. Another thing: since that delivery monopoly is gone, you can see how much of the production of the American newspaper was not only promotional, but redundant.

Let’s face it; the America will stand even if 1500 critics aren’t around to tell us that Taken is an efficient thriller, if 1500 lifestyle writers aren’t there to tell us Moen has a new line of classy kitchen fixtures, or, in the end, if 1500 White House correspondents don’t cover the same presidential press conference.

The irony is that this all wasn’t as corrupt as it sounds. The primary cause of this wasn’t, paradoxically, to curry favor with advertisers, though they certainly liked it. That was just a lagniappe. The big attraction of a press release? It was safe. No one has ever canceled a newspaper subscription (and no one has ever gotten into trouble internally) because of the publication of material contained in a press release. Anyway, I argue this genetic evolution made timidity the hallmark of most daily American newspapers. It manifested itself in myriad ways.

Here’s another anecdote. You’re familiar with the stories papers trot out to mark this or that anniversary. At another paper, I happily worked with a younger writer on what I thought was a pretty juicy story pegged to just one such event. It was a classic “talker” article—one that was designed to make people say, “Hey, did you read that story in The Daily Blatt today?” It was well reported and sensitively handled, but dealt with race and an American icon and was presented quite dramatically.

Intellectually, I’ve always understood the economics of newspapering, but I’m a romantic, too. I also think that an outlet that presents new and original and provocative information will always have a leg up. Anyway, I was anxious to show the higher-ups the sort of work my writer was doing, and so passed it along via email to two or three of my bosses as we worked on it.  As publication approached, they each professed not to have read it, and looked a little vague when I asked them about it. I’m not saying that it was necessarily a great story; I’m saying the editors weren’t even interested in the possibility of its being a great story.

This odd predisposition was bred into newspaper editors in a Darwinian style, over many generations. It’s obvious why they ducked reading it. (Or, let’s be honest, ducked admitting having read it.) They wanted to be able to have deniability if for some reason it blew up in our faces. Subordinate editors get the message: Higher-ups weren’t interested in hot stories, and you’d be out on a limb if things went wrong.

Now, that story doesn’t gibe with the Ben Bradlee you saw portrayed in All the President’s Men. Lets go back to those 1500 dailies, of varying sizes, left in the U.S.; how many have Ben Bradlees, or anything close to a Ben Bradlee?

Not too many.

You can see the evidence of it in the pages of virtually every daily in the U.S. I live now in one of the very largest cities in the U.S., but it’s in classic flyover territory, a sociological light year away from a major media center. Here’s a list of the headlines that appeared on a recent day on the front cover of the paper’s feature section, including both stories and news squibs:

“Wooden Memories”
“Test your hearing”
“Free burrito for teachers”
“Post office food drive”
“Fight Crohn’s and colitis”
“Mom and Estában”
“Healthful salsa non-guilty pleasure”
“Great gifts for teachers”

The first of those—“Wooden Memories”—was the compelling headline of a big feature about folks who keep old wood-shop projects around the house because … they just can’t bring themselves to get rid of them.

“Wooden Memories”! “Healthful salsa”! It’s obvious from reading down that list of headlines that there was nothing there of remote interest of just about any sentient being. But that’s not what the paper’s editors were aiming for. The point is that there was nothing there that could possibly offend anyone.

Any editor who presided over such a sorry collection of non stories and journalistic Malt-o-Meal at a time when papers should have been fighting to make themselves relevant to readers should of course have been fired.

But, inside newspapers, that’s what is, paradoxically, regarded.

Indeed, the top editor of that paper just got a new job: He was stolen away by another well-known American newspaper, one of the ones currently facing bankruptcy and closure. You’d think a paper in that position would be fighting back. Instead, they turned to a guy who’d overseen the publication of sections like that.

Part 2: Aren't reporters partly to blame?

  • The author makes some excellent points and offers some insightful observations about some of the factors that have helped lead the newspaper industry to this pass. But there is an awful lot of broad brushing and less than compelling evidence offered to support those insights. If Mr. Wyman as an editor had ever allowed a story with as many assumptions, suppositions and thinly supported observations to make it into one of the 1,500 newspapers he lumps together as mostly crappy, I wonder how long he'd have kept his job.

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  • You could be right! Maybe that's why I kept getting fired. Thanks for taking the time to comment; would be happy though to further discuss any more evidence you need for any of the suppositions or observations I made. wyman

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  • I need to read both parts before deciding how thinly supported this article is, but I would say this, journalists need to get over themselves. They act like reporting that "Hitler was a bad man; on the other hand, he built the Autobahn" is the only "objective" way to communicate. Well, don't let me shake your pyramid, but a lot of readers are looking for something else. How about throwing out ideas that I can evaluate without having a journalist pick the pros and cons? Not all readers are the dummies journalists would like to believe. We can tell the difference between opinion and "fact-based" journalism and, sometimes, opinion-based journalism is more interesting. Bill, thanks for providing food for thought rather than pedestrian journalism.

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  • Tell you what; I will read the rest of your series before I spout off again. Maybe the preponderance of evidence you provide in making your case will have me eating my words. But just to reiterate: I think you make several good points. Just think there's more anecdotal, "this is what I've experienced/heard" support for your arguments than empirical evidence. Not that there's anything wrong with that, just makes for a weaker argument overall. But like I said, I'll keep reading.

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  • fhschecker is channeling my frustration with "news" that debates the obvious. That's why I can't watch CNN any longer. I end up screaming at Campbell or Anderson, neither of whom cares.

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  • Wyman I've been watching newspapers since i left the business and you are a bit wordy, but, before reading part 2, I can say you know whereof you write....I wasted a lot of time wondering how long big papers could be squeezed of every dollar for wall street while the useful content vanished...... ..small independent community papers may just make a resurgence. Alternative becomes the new majority....if we who love the papers are fortunate....

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  • I read, and enjoyed, both parts of Bill Wyman's persuasive article of the newspaper fix. I disagree, however, that there will be a "resurgence" of independent community papers. That would require the impossible: finding a way to get readers under the age of 30 to read a print newspaper. It won't happen. And I doubt such a paper would make much of an impact with its website as well.

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  • Bill, this is probably the best analysis of what went wrong that I've read. From here in the trenches, I can tell you that whenever I write the stories readers love the most, I get the most grief from my "timid as a titmouse" editors. Their first response is to throw up walls.

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  • Many good and valid points here. A tiny nitpick from this Journal editor: Joe Morgenstern's DVD writeups aren't promotions of "new DVDs." If he's ever written about a newly released DVD, it was by coincidence. The DVDs instead are linked in some way (theme, director, actor, etc.) to the movies in his main review. The idea is either "here's something else you might like" or, when the main review is negative, "here's something you might like instead."

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  • I agree with Bill Wyman's recommendation that newspapers become hyperlocal, and i would like to emphasize that such coverage is not limited to stories of scandals at city hall or paving contracts won through bribes. What makes a paper truly valuable, I think, is that it reports news relevant to all its readers in a format that they all see. I broke in on a small afternoon daily that published at least twenty stories, over the course of a year, on the purchase of a new fire engine, from the original call for bids to the actual delivery of the machine. At the time I thought it was overkill; now i realize that it contributed to the knitting together of the readership, and it demonstrated that someone was paying attention.

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  • Very interesting article and perspective,.. will it appear in print? (no answer required)

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  • Very interesting article with a lot of good insights. I have only one major disagreement. In my experience as a newspaper reporter and reader, and dealing with them from the PR side, newspapers are NOT terribly concerned about offending individual readers. They are VERY concerned about offending a) advertisers and b) powerful civic and corporate interests in the community(ies) they cover. Wyman himself makes the point repeatedly that consumers don't pay for news, but advertisers do (or did.) So it's entirely logical to find that newspapers try mightily to avoid biting the hand that feeds them.

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