American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
March 3, 2009
WORKIN' FOR THE YANKEE DOLLAR
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- We've all heard about the town without pity, but a town without newspapers? Please. Yet is entirely possible that in a short while, both San Francisco and Philadelphia will be without them.
I'm having a hard time wrapping my brain around the concept. And yes, I know about the Internet and how wonderful it is to have all that news, opinion, entertainment, shuck, jive and snark just a click away.
And I understand that we can't ever go back to the "good old days" (they were never that good) when each city had competing broadsheets and tabloids - one for bankers, one for murder fans, one for truckers and shopkeepers, one for wealthy people, one for bleeding-heart liberals, one for crooked politicians, one for straight politicians - a time when you bought the paper that best matched your own personal prejudices.
Then The New York Times (soon to be the last paper standing?) created the idea of an "objective" paper, (putting Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant, Charlie MacArthur and the fedora hat out of business) in order to sell copies to more than one group at a time.
The afternoon paper died. Objectivity became the standard. Republicans, in their slash-and-burn way, labeled newspapers "left-leaning liberal media" and started heaping scorn upon them.
They were only half right. It was the underclass - the underpaid, overworked reporters - who sympathized with the working class. Why? Because they were the working class. The owners? They were capitalists to the bone. And that's a big part of what is doing them in.
They wanted to be William Randolph Hearst, complete with castle, lively blonde movie star mistress, and a private jet (or two). Small, family-owned newspapers got snapped up and big chains - bought with credit - became the norm. For a long time, these moguls were drawing a greedy 30 percent profit margin - something that would probably even attract Halliburton; you had to be a total moron not to make money at the game. And if you could thin the staff, underpay them and take away some of their benefits, even better.
You could get away with it because journalism is a calling for the people who do it. It's exciting. It's dangerous - make the wrong mistake and you can get fired; report on the wrong drug cartel and you can be killed. It's a daily shot of adrenaline. It's a way to satisfy a driving curiosity about people's lives. So reporters, like the abused children they so much resemble, suck up the abuse and love the abuser just to keep doing the work.
But now? Oy vey! The Tribune Company (Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, etc.) is in Chapter 11. New Haven (Conn.) Register publisher Journal Register Co.? Chapter 11. The owners of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis? Chapter 11. The Times? Its stock price is sinking like a stone.
The only newspaper company with a good financial rating right now is The Washington Post, and that gets its money from owning Kaplan, Inc.'s, education services company.
Then there's the big slumdog himself, Rupert Murdoch, who owns the very successful News Corp. Successful? It's down 54 percent over the past six months. What's supporting the company? Fox's entertainment empire, which released, among other things, "Slumdog Millionaire." (It left people scratching their heads recently when Murdoch didn't renew the contract of the guy who runs that side - the profitable one - of the company.)
Now Murdoch's shareholders are starting to snipe that he should cut back on his longtime newspaper addiction. (He owns the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, which just fired longtime gossip columnist Liz Smith because they couldn't afford to pay her salary.)
Newspapers are doing what normal businesses do in a slump - they're cutting expenses. They're putting out smaller newspapers with fewer people. It's like those 12 ounces of coffee you now get in the one-pound can. But with newspapers, it's more noticeable when you try to cut corners. And then you lose readers, and 'round and 'round it goes.
Even if your whipped reporters manage to get some scoops, they go immediately out on the Web for free, where they are dissected and commented upon by a host of leeches also known as blogs. No one has yet come up with the answer to what the blogs would write about if they didn't have the newspapers they so much scorn. I'm just afraid we'll find out.
The Internet has been a large factor in the death of newspapers (Craigslist took away the classifieds, for example, which are the lifeblood of a paper), but Wall Street, with its greed and short-term thinking, hasn't helped. And the tanking economy? Well, it's pulling down everything. Even Internet advertising is taking a nosedive now.
If you believe that an informed citizenry is crucial to a democracy, you should be getting very worried right about now.
Joyce Marcel is a journalist whose first collection of columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," can be ordered from her website, joycemarcel.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.