Trillium News

Extra, Extra: Get Your Newspaper While It's Still Available to Get(A)

The death knell is sounding for an institution that has been a central guidepost in my life: newspaper publishing. When I was growing up in New York City, newspapers opened the world for me; there were then eight dailies being published in the city. I survived a 19-month tour of Army duty by serving as sports editor of the camp newspaper. I was editor of two college newspapers. I was a correspondent for two major newswires. For more than 20 years I wrote a three-times-a-week column that was syndicated to newspapers across the country. To this day, I am a news junkie. Four newspapers are delivered to my driveway every morning.

I am such a believer in newspapers that four years ago I bought 100 shares of New York TimesCompany stock. My rationale was simple: the New York Times is, arguably, the best newspaper in the world, why wouldn’t it be a good stock to hold? Well, my investment has been halved.

Newspapers are clearly in trouble. Since 1970 the population of the U.S. has increased by 50% but the number of newspapers sold every day has declined from 62 million to 54 million. Over that span more than 300 daily newspapers have disappeared. Knight-Ridder, the nation’s second largest newspaper chain, has just been dismembered. The San Francisco Chronicle, the original syndicator of my column, reported a circulation decline of 15% in the six months ended last March 31. And investments in any of the major publishers – Dow Jones, Gannett,Tribune (owner of the Los Angeles Times) – would have been dead money over the past four years.

People are obviously looking elsewhere for information – radio, television, the Internet. Advertisers have cut back or eliminated their space purchases in newspapers. The financial backbone of newspapers used to be classified ads – help wanted, houses for sales, apartments for rent. That business has shifted to the Internet.

Addicted to thumbing my way through newspapers every day, I am dismayed by this development. It’s also affecting me professionally. I recently e-mailed the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday magazine about the chances of doing a series of profiles on small and medium-sized companies. In fewer than five minutes, I got this reply: “Sorry, but I have a very limited budget and even more limited pages. I can’t launch a series of any sort at this time.”

It bothers me on another level as well. Newspapers have often been the gadflies we need to puncture the hot air balloons of politicians. They have been bulwarks for human rights. Who is to take their place? Somehow I don’t see Google, AOL or Yahoo playing this kind of role. I’ve noticed that when I am looking for information about a company on Google, the search rarely yields any articles which are negative.

The newspaper industry lost 2,000 jobs last year, and cost-cutting was carried to a ludicrous extreme at the McClatchey-owned Minneapolis Star-Tribune, a paper that used to carry my column. The paper installed vending machines in the newsroom so that staffers who wanted to see the paper have to plunk down a quarter to extract a copy. No more free copies. You might have guessed what would happen. Employees began inserting a quarter and pulling out multiple copies to share with colleagues. During the first week the racks were up, 43% of the papers removed were not paid for. Circulation director Steve Alexander was irate: “Taking more than one newspaper from a rack when you have only inserted enough money for one paper is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Employees who steal newspapers will put their jobs at risk.”

I read about this in my favorite newspaper, the print edition of the New York Times.