No one likes to see the underdog get beaten, but the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, long the David against the Seattle Times newspaper Goliath, just got clobbered. The Blethens are the last men standing in this long-time grudge match, but they're staggering too.
Seattle likes to regard itself as an exceptional place, and staying a two-newspaper town fed our sense that we're something special, a literate, world-class city that could buck the trend that saw most major cities become one-daily burgs. We buy more books, we have more education, we're paragons of the creative class. Members of Committee for a Two Newspaper Town often made it sound as if having two daily newspapers was somehow the Platonic ideal of civic enlightenment.
Seattle never likes having its exceptionalism questioned. We don't like to be reminded that we're not so special, or that national trends can reach across the Cascades or Pacific and slap us upside the head. No matter our deeds and intentions, daily newspapers are dying like Ebola victims, bleeding from every orifice: circulation, advertising, public confidence.
To put the folding of the print edition of the P-I into a little context, check the grim statistics this week from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism's annual "State of the News Media" report. It finds that newspapers are dying across the country, thriving only in small markets where Craigslist has yet to penetrate or where isolation, monopoly and intimate connections with readers have not yet been lost. Small dailies and community weeklies still connect with micro-communities and offer the kinds of things Facebook does: The paper you read is about your friends and family. It has recipes, obits, weddings, and school sports. These aren't newspaper assets, they're the embodiment of the community itself: What's vital belongs to the readers, not the writers and editors.
This lesson was brought home to me decades ago when I got to know Henry Gay, crusading editor of the Shelton-Mason County Journal. Henry was a liberal editor in a redneck timber town, and I once asked a neighbor of his why the community put up with his progressivism. The answer was: Well, as long as Henry prints the marriages, births, bridal news, and the high school sports scores, we let him have his page. "His" page. Henry may have thought he owned the paper, but his readers thought of him as more of an eccentric caretaker of a local trust. As long as he gave the community what it needed, he could spout off in his own column.
But daily newspapers have generally lost that trust. Seattle has had two general interest dailies for decades, and both have played enormous roles in the city's history, no question. But I'm struck with how little love there is for either one. Their shrinking circulation over the years, of course, was a sign that readers were peeling away, even before the advent of the Internet. The Pew study finds that the newspapers hurting the worst are in big urban areas, which suggests there is not wide public agreement that daily papers are necessary or relevant to life as its lived in the big city. Oddly, as Seattle grows and urbanizes, it is increasingly hostile to the small-town connections and shared sense of reality that have supported local papers for so long. The Web offers more diversity to increasingly diverse urban constituencies who may no long determine their "community" not by physical proximity but by niche, orbit or affinity group.
The loss of connection with and confidence has been dramatic nationwide. The Pew study found that less than half (43 percent) of Americans say that losing their local daily would hurt a lot, and only a third (33 percent) say they would miss reading their daily a lot if it shut down.
This runs counter to the dire warnings of newspaper folk who have warned at the bonds that will be broken if the dailies disappear. Clay Shirky, in a fascinating analysis "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable" that looks at this critical moment in media history, says that simply saying it's so doesn't mean it's so when the market is moving its eyeballs elsewhere thanks to technology. He writes "The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; 'You're gonna miss us when we're gone!' has never been much of a business model." The new technological imperatives of the Internet and mobility are overcoming the history of newspapers' past role in society. All indicators are that the past is past because it is demonstrably not sustainable. In the case of JOAs, even government intervention didn't solve the problem.
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