By Tom Price, March 27, 2009
Forty-three years ago, Time magazine posed a provocative question on its cover: “Is God Dead?” The answer turned out to be: “not so much.”
This February, the magazine's cover pondered ways to stave off the death of newspapers. With the industry copiously bleeding red ink, reporters and editors losing jobs by the thousands and online news becoming increasingly popular — and controversial — Time's editors aren't the only people wondering about journalism's future. Certainly the recent news has been grim:
- The Rocky Mountain News shut down on Feb. 27 after reporting about the Denver region for 150 years
- The 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer turned off its presses on March 17, becoming a Web-only publication.
- The Christian Science Monitor, a highly regarded national daily newspaper since 1908, plans in April to become a Web and e-mail publication, offering only a weekly, magazine-like, printed edition.
- Thirty-three newspapers — including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Philadelphia Inquirer — sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from December through February.
- Even the mighty New York Times, heavily in debt, in early 2009 borrowed an additional $250 million at 14 percent interest from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helu, once described by The Times itself as having a “robber baron reputation.”
The collapse of newspapers threatens to leave “a dramatically diminished version of democracy in its wake,” John Nichols and Robert McChesney warned.
“Journalism is collapsing, and with it comes the most serious threat in our lifetimes to self-government,” wrote Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, and McChesney, a University of Illinois communications professor. “As journalists are laid off and newspapers cut back or shut down, whole sectors of our civic life go dark.
Thomas Jefferson once famously remarked that, if he had to choose between government without newspapers or newspapers without government, he wouldn't hesitate to preserve newspapers. In the subsequent 222 years, Americans have had both, and newspapers have been citizens' primary source of information about government at all levels.
Many journalists, scholars, lobbyists and government officials worry that the decline of newspapers will leave citizens without sufficient information for effective self-government. They also worry that the fragmented nature of Internet and cable television audiences could turn the clock back to the late-18th and early-19th centuries, when a large number of partisan newspapers printed more opinion than news, and many readers read only publications with which they agreed.
As more Americans turn to the Internet and cable television for news, however, others are hopeful that new forms of journalism will fill the gaps. They envision cable news channels, bloggers, other online content providers and newspapers' own Web sites picking up the slack.
Ironically, newspapers' readership appears to be higher now than ever before as more and more readers access their papers online. U.S. daily newspapers sell about 51 million copies a day, while hosting nearly 75 million unique visitors on their Web sites each month. The New York Times sells about a million newspapers daily and about 1.4 million on Sunday, while its Web site attracts 20 million unique visitors monthly.
Circulation and advertising revenues have been in a steady decline, however, and newspapers have not figured out how to profit from their Web sites. Only about 10 percent of newspaper advertising revenues are earned on the Internet.
Journalists, scholars, entrepreneurs and philanthropists are looking for ways to finance high-quality, comprehensive reporting online. In addition to the traditional for-profit model, they are experimenting with nonprofit news organizations and philanthropic support of journalistic enterprises. Some are discussing government funding.
No less an Internet luminary than Google CEO Eric Schmidt views the loss of newspapers as “a real tragedy.” “Journalism is a central part of democracy,” he said. “I don't think bloggers make up the difference.”
In fact, most news online is produced by newspapers or by organizations that are funded substantially by newspapers, such as The Associated Press. Many television organizations field significant newsgathering operations. But most lag far behind their newspaper counterparts — particularly at the local, regional and state levels — and they often follow newspapers' reporting leads.
“The decline of newspapers has a big ripple effect,” says Peter Shane, executive director of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, “because to a substantial extent television and radio news always has been based on local newspapers' reporting.”
Yet, nearly across the board, newspapers are shrinking the government coverage that's most important to informing citizens in a democracy. Papers that remain in business are cutting staff, closing bureaus and reducing the number of reporters who cover public affairs full time.
Even as the United States is involved in an ever more globalized world — fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, guarding against far-flung terrorist organizations, competing in a globalized economy — U.S. news organizations are bringing their foreign correspondents home.
And with a new administration shaking up Washington and the troubled global economy looking to Washington for leadership, newspapers are shrinking or closing their Washington bureaus. More than 40 regional correspondents — those who cover a particular community's interests in the nation's capital — lost their jobs over the last three years. Even major papers — including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun — have cut the size of their Washington bureaus. Other publications have eliminated their Washington staffs entirely — notably The San Diego Union whose D.C. reporters won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for exposing corrupt U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who now sits in jail. Newspapers in half the states now have no congressional correspondent.
Associated Press Senior Vice President Sue Cross lamented declining coverage of city, county and state governments as well — not just the number of reporters but their expertise. “Seasoned beat reporters are, in many cases, leaving the industry,” she said.
Virginia's capital press corps shrank by half during the last decade, according to AP Richmond Correspondent Bob Lewis. Maryland media are sending half as many correspondents to Annapolis to cover state government as they did just two years ago, former AP reporter Tom Stukey said. In Broward County, Fla. (Fort Lauderdale), Commissioner John Rodstrom said, local newspapers have cut their county government coverage in half in a year.
“So who's watching out for the interests of the public?” former Boston Globe investigative reporter Walter Robinson asks. “The answer is darn fewer people than used to be.”
The reduction in regional correspondents has generated particular concern in Washington. Regional reporters' importance goes beyond uncovering wrongdoing, according to Michael Gessel, a longtime congressional aide who now works as a Washington lobbyist for the Dayton Development Corp. in Ohio. “At least equally important is the day-to-day — and sometimes mundane — coverage of what our elected officials do that isn't scandalous,” Gessel says.
Members of Congress often work hardest on matters that get the most coverage by news media in their districts, Gessel explains. Without a hometown reporter tracking the districts' interests in Washington, he says, those interests are likely to get less congressional attention.
Citizens also need to know when government does things well, he adds. “All democracies require consent of the governed. If people only hear about scandals, then that consent is withdrawn. Practically speaking, that means less willingness to have their tax dollars support government.”
Political Science Professor Gary Jacobson, of the University of California, San Diego, is among those who discount the loss of local newspapers' Washington-based reporting. “You don't have to be in D.C. to find out what [members of Congress] are doing,” Jacobson said. Reporters can interview lawmakers on their frequent visits home, he said, and citizens can track legislators' activity by accessing government documents online.
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