Newspapers Writing Their Own Obituaries

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These past few days’ local and national newspapers have been busy writing obituaries….their own. Pages have been filled with news articles documenting the carnage. The Christian Science Monitor says that after a century, it will cease publication of its daily newspaper. To stave off its demise, the Star Ledger of Newark will slash its editorial staff by an astonishing 40%. Gannett, the nation’s largest paper, will cut 10% and the Los Angeles Times will shed another 75 newsroom workers.

And magazines are not immune. American Express Publishing and Time Inc. (including the capitalist praising powerhouse Forbes Magazine) just announced more layoffs. Traditional advertisers such as car companies, retailers and banks are slashing advertising budgets not just to save money, but to simply survive.

Since the news hit, editorial writers and columnists have been busy “mourning old media’s decline”, as Advertising Age put it with a bold headline on its web site. Perhaps fitting since the web is considered the invention being charged with killing off the newspaper business.

But we citizens should take heed to what pundits such as New York Times columnist David Carr fear. These papers will have “fewer editors and reporters overseeing the deeds and misdeeds of local government and businesses.” And Carr reports that at the recent American Magazine Conference, one speaker worried that “if the great brands of journalism were to vanish, the web itself would quickly become a ‘cesspool’ of useless information”. Surprisingly, the speaker was Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

A good friend of mine, George Riggs, who recently retired as Publisher of The San Jose Mercury News, is equally concerned. He wrote me this past week saying he understands the old business model is permanently broken. But he worries about how we will replace the many stories of public corruption broken by investigative journalists who spent years getting the goods on the crooks.
“I keep watching” he says, “but I don’t see Google, EBay or Craigslist, all of which have taken huge amounts of ad revenue away from newspapers, stepping up to do that. Certainly Google and others have every right to compete for the print ad dollars of newspapers without having to assume their journalistic responsibilities. But the point is they wind up killing newspapers and journalism in the process. How then does that critical role get filled? That is a hugely important question.”

And don’t expect the void to be filled by network news programs or cable shows. News Divisions have been cut dramatically. Cable news has morphed into “infotainment” programming, with lots of sappy story-telling or yelling and screaming to hide any hope of substance or objectivity. As to local news, I ran into a New York based independent producer recently, who left the TV news business in disgust, saying “the perfect lead to a local newscast these days is a pretty young blonde standing in front of a burning building.” To that I added, “It’s the lead.”

I guess the cynical answer to George Riggs question, shared by thousands of other career journalists, is that in the end we may all just get the kind of news we pay for.

(Brian Banmiller is a national Business Correspondent for CBS News Radio, free lance writer and public speaker. The former television business news anchor in San Francisco can be reached at brian@banmilleronbusiness.com .)


This article originally published on October 31, 2008.

Brian Banmiller

About Brian

CBS News Radio national business journalist Brian Banmiller has spent more than 40 years in the news industry, covering business, politics and the economy on television, radio and in print. Currently, his “Banmiller on Business” reports are delivered to an audience of millions nationwide.

 
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