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Perfect storm for newspapers

January 30, 2009 Leave a comment

I cut my eye teeth on newspapering, so you can understand my dismay at the problems confronting newspapers today.

All over the United States, major newspapers are going into bankruptcy or being put up for fire sales: Tribune Media, owner of the Chicago Tribune and the L.A. Times; the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Rocky Mountain News (Denver), Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and Miami Herald.

Even the venerable New York Times, a billion dollars in debt, has had to accept a rescue offer from Mexican billionaire Carlos Helu.

I’ve been an inveterate reader of any newspaper I could get my hands on. Now that I spend a lot of time at my country place where I can’t get a paper I’m relying — like more and more folks — on the Internet for  news. I must confess it’s not the same thing. Words on the screen don’t, for me, convey the same magisterial authority as words on paper.

In Canada, the problems aren’t as evident but they’re lurking just below the surface, ready to pop out. The combination of decreasing public literacy in a visual age, the alternatives offered by the Internet (like Craigslist for want ads) and now the recession, add up to the proverbial perfect storm.

I was a little non-plussed by the Toronto Star’s reaction. A fine newspaper with a dedication to social justice, the Star made a big announcement about how it’s going to concentrate the most important news in its front section. It’ll also restore the editorial page to Section A. Isn’t this what the Star did for years and years? Sounds like back to the future.

globeOne newspaper that seems to have responded effectively to the Internet is Toronto’s Globe and Mail. It’s made a serious effort at convergence, linking stories in the paper with expanded coverage on the web. Blogs, reader comments, and other signs of interactivity represent a serious effort to accommodate readers who are  at home with the web.

The pattern was set when Ken Thomson was alive and he moved the Globe into information processing by acquiring outfits like Carswell who supply services to lawyers. Since then, Thomson Reuters has come into being, wrapping in the old Reuters global news service. But their main revenue comes from selling data to the financial services industry.

Ironically, for all the news that’s on the web, most of it stems from newspaper parents. If the paper goes down, what becomes of the web site?

On CBC Newsworld yesterday, I heard an interview with Matthew Fraser, the first editor of the National Post. He talked about the dismal future for papers, especially the Post. It’s lost money since its launch almost 10 years ago.

“It’s difficult to imagine a newspaper like the National Post will survive. The banks will soon knock on the door,” he said.

The Post is owned by Canwest Global, C anada’s biggest media company. Its share price has dropped from $30 to around 50 cents. It’s carrying a load of debt.

Fraser thinks the only hope for papers is to find wealthy investors looking for “billionaire sandboxes.” That’s what the New York Times seems to have done.

It’s all so sad, especially when there’s no real Internet alternative to newspapers for their investigative reporting, in-depth coverage and local community service.

I started my career in newspapers straight out of high school. When I was 20, I was editor of a chain of 35 Alberta weeklies. Ironically, it’s probably the small community newspapers that have the best chance of surviving the Internet Age.

Interesting discussion on PBS Newshour a while ago. Have a listen:

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