I yield to no one in my love of newspapers. After more than four decades of pounding keyboards for various dailies, and, before that, tossing the now long-gone Yonkers, N.Y., Herald Statesman into the bushes and, occasionally, through front windows of subscribers on my newspaper route, a lot of ink has rubbed off on my psyche. But the time has come to say goodbye to the daily newspaper, a delivery system that should have found its place onto the museum shelf a decade ago, when the Internet shouldered its way into the news business.
Like most goodbyes, parting isn’t easy. And like most, the best way is quick and clean. But that isn’t what is happening in my trade. In the news business we like to write about the next best thing, but when it shows up on our doorstep we shift gears into denial and foot-dragging. Take the announcement Feb. 15 by the Post Register, in Idaho Falls, that it is dropping its Monday print paper because of mounting financial pressure.
"In this changing economic environment," Post Register Publisher Roger Plothow wrote in a statement to the Idaho paper’s readers, "businesses that don’t stay nimble will be left in the dust." And then, for a dollop of good news, Plothow said his paper was "moving forward" by installing a state-of-the-art printing press.
Think about that. So many readers and advertisers are bailing out of print that the Post Register can’t afford to publish a newspaper every day. And the paper’s solution: keep publishing — and spend tens of millions of dollars on a new press to crank out more print papers. [Editor's update: see comment from Publisher Plothow below, putting figure for new press at $2.4 million.] That is nimble the way Sonny Liston was a ballerina.
Here in Seattle, a similar sort of lumbering last dance is underway. Since the Hearst Corp. announced that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has been losing readers and cash for the last eight years and will stop publishing next month, there have been urgent gatherings of newsies and others — mostly in bars — to discuss how to find someone who will keep the city’s second daily paper alive.
This is honest angst, but misplaced energy. TheP-I died nine years ago, when Hearst, in an effort to save a few million bucks in the short term, agreed to let the Seattle Times compete in the morning market. There's been plenty of strong journalism done at the P-I, no question, but the overall thrust of the paper has been all over the map since then.
First, out-of-town coverage was stopped. Then it was announced that the paper would cover only local hard news. Then came sporadic national projects and a flotilla of blogs about everything under the sun. The nervous little stabs at Stranger-like snarkiness didn't work either. Meanwhile, the P-I’s readership, a devoted but dwindling lot, kept dying or moving away, and the new people neither remember, nor give a fig about, great P-I staffers of the past like Emmett Watson and Tom Robbins.
Nor have things worked out much better for the Seattle Times. It too is dying, just a bit more slowly. The Times newsroom staff has been halved, the paper's size cut down, and its reporting reach curtailed. One of its owners, McClatchy Co., is drowning in debt. Its other owner, the Blethen family, is desperately trying to stave off the bankers by tossing assets off the sled.
Likely as not, in the next few months the Times will issue an announcement that, like the Post Register, it won’t be publishing a print edition every day. And like the Post Register’s Plothow, some Times suit will pronounce that the paper is making "hard but necessary decisions to ensure we continue to thrive during down times."
Don’t believe it. Print newspapers will never thrive again; the down times tipped over into real time for print years ago. Seattle may yet have smart, comprehensive news coverage, but it will arrive in bits and bytes, in an e-paper not ink-on-paper.
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