The Death of the Newspaper Biz
“Any of us who has ever been at a zoning meeting with our own property at stake is aware of the urge to cut through all the pernicious bullshit and go straight to firearms.” — David Mamet
NEWSMEN OF MY AGE benefited greatly from the shift to corporate ownership of newspapers. Our salaries tripled overnight if only because we were being paid so pitifully before. Here is the great A.J. Liebling (1904-1963) of the New Yorker describing our pre-corporate circumstances:
“The pattern of a newspaperman’s life is like the plot of ‘Black Beauty.’ Sometimes he finds a kind master who gives him a dry stall and an occasional bran mash in the form of a Christmas bonus, sometimes he falls into the hands of a mean owner who drives him in spite of spavins and expects him to live on potato peelings.”
In liebling’s time, editors and surgeons wore bow ties (the full length ones got caught in the work), dated cocktail waitresses (who overheard things) and walked to the office (couldn’t afford a car). And it was a time when the prime spot in the unheated newsroom was along the south wall with the windows most warmed by the sun.
Even up until the 1970s a directive would be described as “coming from the South Wall,” meaning it was from the top. And until then, the newsroom itself was staffed by semi-alcoholic reporters with photographic memories, all ruthlessly oppressed by a city desk fanatically concerned with accuracy and with maintaining reader trust on everything from a police siren in the night to a growing national debt.
Contrast that with today’s amply paid J-school professionals (the few who are employed) on their relentless push to implement vaguely defined social-justice goals and the facts be damned.
Right here we must ask you to forgive us an “I told you so” moment. We predicted that readers wouldn’t pay to be lectured by even sober journalists. Indeed, the Liebling quote is from our Spring 2006 journal, which we dedicated to charting the disastrous direction newspapers were headed. The issue is required reading for anyone interested in exactly where the profession went off the rails.
And as one of the social-justice warriors conceded to us back then: “Editors and reporters like to tell themselves that their jobs exist to serve readers, but the readers are, increasingly, rejecting the service.”
So newspaper ownership seems to make a difference. That was so obvious but so ignored by the intelligentsia that we feared we were missing something. Did the shift to corporate management have anything to do with the historic collapse of the newspaper industry, once the largest manufacturing sector in the nation? Could a corporate occupier caring only about quarterly goals be one thing and a hometown owner hoping to hold together the family business (and his town) be something else?
Seventeen years later with the sweep of corporate buyouts complete, the damage report is in. The real-life experience of the readership did not buy the woke claptrap that the chain newspapers were selling. For example, between 2018 and 2022, the Indianapolis Star circulation dropped 74.5 percent, or so reports NiemanLab.com.
No, there wasn’t any reason the Star and other newspapers couldn’t have prospered in the digital age. The Internet is at base an information delivery system. Newspapers had a huge head start in providing the information to be delivered.
But how did they use that head start?
In the early 1980s I was on a panel discussing the future of newspapers. One of the other panelists was the editorial page editor of the brand new USA Today. When it was her turn to speak she explained — arrogantly and at length, I thought — how USA Today would be the innovator of the modern editorial page, not us hidebound bow-tied dinosaurs. Opinion surveys would be commissioned and her editorialists would simply convert the survey results (hello ChatGBT) into editorial positions, preachy ones was my guess.
How did that work out? USA Today has gone from 2,632,392 subscribers to 180,381 in just the last four years. Gannett has dropped half of its employees.
To be fair, there was cynical brilliance to the idea. Don’t people like their own ideas best? Maybe not. Maybe readers of newspapers are uncommonly discerning. They may be interested in the truth of a matter, not just an opinion that agreed with that on the top of their head. They may be wise as Socrates was wise . . . wise that they know they don’t know all that much.
The new fellows on the South Wall missed that. — tcl