A talk before Le Petit Salon, New Orleans
If you have seen the movie The Paper, you will remember that much of it revolves around the story of the arrest of two young black men for a murder and the efforts by a columnist named Michael McDougal (Randy Quaid) and the metro editor, Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton), to get the story right. When the two young men are arrested early in the day, the "wood," the giant-sized headline for the next day’s story, reads “Gotcha!” But with more reporting, it becomes obvious that the two were wrongfully accused. Henry wants the story rewritten and a new headline on the front page.
Henry and McDougal are in the press room. The presses have already started to roll. To stop them, put the new page in place, and start them again would be an expensive operation, and especially because the paper is in dire financial straits. Henry dithers about whether to remake the front page with the new headline and replate the press.
Finally, he says, I'm stopping it.
Michael McDougal: What?
Henry: We stop and replate. Go upstairs and write up what you've got. Tell Lou to send down "They Didn't Do It".
McDougal: Hey Henry, are you going to say it? You gotta say it.
Henry: Use the same art they used for "Gotcha!".
McDougal: Come on, how often do you get the chance? You can't just do it and not say it, come on!
Henry: I -- Stop the presses!
That’s a phrase that’s been used a lot lately; more and more people have used it to headline their views on what is happening in the newspaper industry.
Normally, though, “stop the presses” is an expression that is used only in the movies. You certainly don’t hear it in pressrooms. Especially these days, when newspapers are pinching all the pennies they can out of every dime.
A fellow recently wrote to the listserv many of us former United Press International newsmen subscribe to to say that he had agreed to talk about the future of American newspapers. "What should I say about their future?" he asked us. I wrote, "Be silent."
I won’t follow my own advice to him here. But I want to start with a look backward.
What we are seeing would seem to bed a new phenomenon. Newspapers, even large metropolitan dailies, stopping their presses, and others whose reported financial woes threaten the longevity of even more newspapers. But the situation has been years in the making.
The first newspapers in America were political or business newspapers, both rather expensive and, for the most part, catering to small groups. In the 1830s, however, came a popular newspaper. Publishers like Horace Greeley, who published the New York Tribune and, especially, James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald led the way. To them, everything in the city was news, from Wall Street to society balls to courts to City Hall--everything about the city, and the nation and the world, for that matter, that would interest their readers.
They were sensational. Ministers staged a boycott of the Herald. But the newspapers' editorial pages showed that their publishers and editors understood that the success of representative democracy depended on an informed public. They were also filled with advertisements aimed at that broad public. Department stores grew on newspaper advertising—and the metropolitan newspapers grew on department store advertising.
As the population grew, as business and industry expanded, the formula those publishers developed insured that newspaper publication became ever more profitable. Media buying was not the sophisticated operation it is today, in which businesses buy advertising not only on the basis of cost per thousand readers or viewers, but can target specific age groups and sexes who read a particular newspaper or magazine or watch a particular program. And circulation was not carefully audited -- all newspapers inflated it to increase the price they could charge for ads. So businesses spread their advertising among two or three or more newspapers.
In 1861, six English language newspapers were being published in the city, three in French, and one in German. New Orleans was then the sixth largest city in the United States with a population of 168,000—and it supported all of them.
After the Civil War, individuals like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst grew wealthy catering to both readers and advertisers. Both owned more than one newspaper. Hearst held on to the San Francisco Examiner when he moved to New York and bought the Journal and Pulitzer kept the Post-Dispatch in St. Louis. Hearst spread out across the country and developed a chain of newspapers.
In most instances, they and other chain owners bought a newspaper to establish themselves in a city--in some, they bought two or more newspapers and combined them. And they battled each other for circulation. The University of Chicago sociologist Robert Park, writing in 1925, in the midst of newspaper wars in that city, opined that the newspaper has not just a history…but a natural history, and, he wrote, the struggle for existence has been the struggle for circulation. He said of the successful publishers, they “discovered the kind of paper that men and women would read and had the courage to publish it.”
Another scholar, the Harvard historian Oscar Handlin, wrote in The Uprooted, his lovely book on the late 19th century immigrants, that the mass journals were built by catering to immigrants. He described Hearst and Pulitzer as “perspicacious men alive to the potentialities of this new public…. They emphasized the sensational at the expense of pure news; they devoted space to the doings of the local associations and of local personages; the serial story was at home in their pages; and they stood ready to advise their readers in the most intimate manner. Finally, they catered consistently to the nationalistic emotions of the organized immigrant movements. All this a mass circulation enabled them to do cheaply and lavishly. It was no wonder that even some in the first generation were inclined to lay down their pennies for these papers, simple in language, big with headlines and fat with pictures.”
The latter part of the 19th century of course was a time of cut-throat competition in American business generally. The era of Hearst and Pulitzer was also the era of Rockefeller and Carnegie—laissez faire to the utmost. And by the turn of the century, as a result of natural selection in the news business, as in oil and steel, Americans began to see fewer different newspapers in newsboys’ hands.
Changes in the economic situation of newspapers after World War I were especially dramatic. The post-war period was one of great newspaper consolidation--weak newspapers being swallowed up by stronger ones or disappearing entirely.
The historian of American journalism Frank Luther Mott points out in his American Journalism that newspaper consolidations had occurred in the past, but not to the same degree.
First, more newspapers were in existence than any city could afford to support. Some could not serve their communities with either news or advertising. Advertisers seeking to reach the largest possible audience placed their ads--and money--with larger newspapers, weakening still further the economic base of newspapers with smaller circulations.
Business expenses were growing. Labor costs were higher, along with costs for paper, ink, type metal and machinery. Costs of transmitting the news were going up. Many newspapers could not earn enough to pay the increases and folded. Others joined with competitors because it was more economical for them to operate a joint plant twice a day then two separate plants only once a day.
In addition, the major news wire service, the Associated Press, had a rule against selling to competing newspapers. About the only way a publisher could get the service would be by buying a weaker paper that already was an AP member. That’s how Pulitzer’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch came to be; he bought one at a sheriff’s sale in order to have a newspaper, the other for its AP membership.
Our work and living habits changed, also. Workers – especially factory workers -- once went to their jobs early in the morning and got off early in the afternoon. They may have picked up an evening newspaper for the trolley ride home, and the family read it in the evening. That schedule changed in the latter half of the 20th century as we made a transition from a factory system to a service economy. Evening newspapers in metropolitan areas lost circulation and died out or switched to morning publication or merged with morning newspapers. That happened in cities where I have lived—Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Kansas City and Milwaukee. Here in New Orleans, where the States-Item was a strong evening newspaper, it was merged with the Times-Picayune into what came to be known as the Tipsy—an appropriate name for New Orleans—and then one day the States-Item name disappeared from the flag.
The period between the wars saw further losses of newspapers, largely the result of the development of radio and television. Especially after the second world war, people began to turn to television for their daily news. Newspapers responded by brightening their pages and simplifying their layouts. The style of newspaper writing became more direct, with shorter, active sentences, more like the language people use in conversation.
Content also changed. Radio and television could present the “who,” “what,” “where,” and “when” as soon as events occurred, or shortly thereafter. But they could not easily provide the “why” and the “how” of news. So newspapers began to move toward interpretive reporting, explaining the meaning of events.
The public’s use of newspapers changed, too. Rather than turning to the newspaper only for news, they used it also for weather information, stock market reports, advice columns, advertising--and television listings.
The effects of television on the other media are just as great. The big Hollywood movie studios lost money heavily. Some closed down. But thoughtful producers came to realize that they were no longer in the movie business, but in the entertainment business. They began making movies specifically for television. And they converted their lots into production studios for television programs.
Television hurt book publishing, too. Readers stopped using the local library and stopped buying trade books, at least partially. They spent their leisure time in front of their television sets rather than with a good book.
Magazines, which competed with television for national advertising, began to lose money. Many of the general interest magazines we grew up with dropped from sight, including Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s,” Coronet, and Look. Others reduced their size. At the same time, specialized magazines like Time and Newsweek, The New Yorker, Ladies Home Journal and the like survived and prospered. It is not strange at all that the most successful specialty publication of its time, the one with the greatest circulation, was TV Guide--and even it is in financial trouble. Now, we have even more-specialized magazines, tailored to our narrower interests.
So the world of media we once knew has been a long time changing, and in recent years, the changes have accelerated. As in the past, today’s media are influenced by economic, social and political forces. And by developments–and challenges--in technology; the internet, of course, as did radio and tv, seems to be having great effects on all of the media.
The general trend toward huge businesses and industries brought about by competition and rising costs has carried over into journalism. The newspaper mergers coupled with the growth of chains that began in the early 20th century continued to the end of the century.
Remember the movie Citizen Kane? Kane’s California estate was called Xanadu, after that “stately pleasure dome” of Kubla Kahn. The new media moguls--as they had begun to be styled—of the late 20th century found newspapers to be profitable beyond their wildest dreams. Al Neuharth, who extended the Gannett chain and founded USA Today was reaping earnings of 20 and 30 percent (so far this year Gannett has suffered a 60 percent drop in revenue and is down 18 percent in revenue).
In this new century, however, those who would also feed on honey dew and drink the milk of a Paradise of newspaper profits, would be sorely disappointed. They over-extended themselves. Sam Zell who bought the Chicago Tribune not long ago, is perhaps the latest and, certainly, most egregious example. In buying the Tribune, he also acquired the Los Angeles Times, New York’s Newsday, the Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel, Hartford Courant and half a dozen smaller newspapers; WGN radio; 21 television stations, including WGNO and WNOL in New Orleans; WGN Cable; a partial stake in WB Network; and Tribune Entertainment, a television production and syndication company; a host of other media-related companies; and the Chicago Cubs; and Wrigley Field. That was a tremendous load of debt to take on, and Zell mistakenly thought, as he has now admitted, that profits would cover the purchase.
Then came the financial crunch. The Tribune is in bankruptcy; so is its rival, the Sun-Times; groups like Gannett and Lee Enterprises, which bought the Pulitzer family’s Post-Dispatch -- are on the verge of bankruptcy; Rocky Mountain News is dead; Seattle Post-Intelligencer has gone to internet publication, as has the Newhouses' Ann Arbor News; Detroit newspapers are in print only three days a week. I haven't space to recite the whole sad "Te Deum" of the dead and dying.
Survivors—the walking wounded-- are cutting staff. Among the casualties were 300 at the Los Angeles Times…205 at the Miami Herald…156 at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution…150 at the Kansas City Star. Among the Pulitzer Prize winners this year was a reporter in Arizona who had been laid off a few months ago.
The survivors are also cutting other costs. They have gone to thinner newsprint, print fewer pages, combined sections of special features, and worst of all, decreased quality reporting. An acquaintance of mine noted recently that there are fewer serious competitors for Pulitzer Prizes lately. So we subscribers ask why we are paying the same subscription price or higher for less and less content.
One group we do not know much about is the parent of the Times-Picayune, Advance Publications. It is privately held—and held very privately—by Samuel I Newhouse Jr. and Donald Newhouse. They own dailies in about 20 cities around the country, more than 40 weekly newspapers, and two dozen magazines published by their Conde Nast unit, including the The New Yorker, Vogue, and Vanity Fair.
Advance now has mandatory 10-day furloughs without pay and a pension freeze; there’s a hiring freeze at the Times-Picayune, perhaps at others. All you have to do to see the new newspaper realities is pick up that newspaper every morning— thinner paper, down-sized and fewer pages, with one page of comics where there had been two, truncated sections for books, business, travel and others. Many of those money savers came in the wake of Katrina, but without Katrina, we would still be seeing them. I don’t think we will have to do any serious worrying about the Times-Picayune, though, until Nell Nolan’s feature disappears.
And it could.
Let me tell you in mournful numbers. In 1910, the nation had 2,202 daily newspapers. In 2007, it has just slightly more than 1,422—a loss of about 8 newspapers every year. Circulation of newspapers rose from 28-million to just under 50 million—up 78 percent; but that increase did not keep pace with the population gain of 227 percent—92-and a quarter million in 1910 to an estimated 301 and a half-million in 2007.
What those numbers add up to is dreary outlook for American democracy.
Robert Park wrote, back in 1925: “If public opinion is to continue to govern in the future as it has in the past, if we propose to maintain a democracy as Jefferson conceived it, the newspaper must continue to tell us about ourselves. We somehow learn to know our community and its affairs in the same intimate way in which we knew them in the country villages. The newspaper must continue to be the printed diary of the home community…. Local News is the very stuff that democracy is made of.”
Thomas Jefferson put it even more simply: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
How can newspapers save themselves?
Some say they cannot. They are doomed. We will get our news from the over-simplifiers and sensationalists of Fox news, MSNBC, CNN or from minuscule number of professional journalists who publish on the internet. Cynics say we will have to rely on amateurs – who now publish material they have picked up from professional publications or rumor mongers.
Most observers say that newspapers can survive, but they must show that Jefferson and Park were right—that they are essential to our democracy. Forget about Britney and focus on keeping the reading public informed about government and other aspects of life that really affect our lives.
Some hold that newspapers could become non-profit organizations that we would support with tax-deductible dollars. Or they could become philanthropies, supporting small professional organizations that would gather news and information. Or they could get underwriting for developing new models of newsgathering in the online environment—and there is, already, a good deal of experimentation with online publishing of news gathered by groups of displaced newspaper people.
Others say government is the answer. Distasteful as that may seem, government has stepped in before—in 1970, Congress enacted the Newspaper Preservation Act (in its first appearance on the Hill it was called the Failing Newspaper Act, and it failed). The measure allowed separate, competing newspapers in a city, where one was suffering heavy circulation losses, to form joint operating agreements—to combine their circulation and advertising departments, though keeping their news operations separate. In effect, it exempted those newspapers from antitrust laws. So there is precedent.
Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland has introduced a bill to a allow newspapers to operate as nonprofits for educational purposes under the U.S. tax code, giving them a similar status to public broadcasting companies. Under his arrangement, newspapers would still be free to report on all issues, including political campaigns. But they would be prohibited from making political endorsements. Advertising and subscription revenue would be tax exempt, and contributions to support news coverage or operations could be tax deductible.
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, where the New York Times-owned Boston Globe is in danger of being shut down, is going to hold hearings a week from today to consider the economic problems facing the newspaper industry—and, presumably, what government might do to help ameliorate the situation.
Two journalism professors have argued that so essential is the newspaper press to the functioning of a democratic government that the government has an obligation to step in to save it. The suggest an annual tax credit for the first $200 they spend on daily newspapers. “The newspapers would have to publish at least five times per week … with less than 50 percent advertising. In effect, this means the government would pay for a a free daily newspaper subscription for each of us…and we would get to pick the newspaper. They say their plan would “ buy time for our old media newsrooms--and for us citizens--to develop a plan to establish journalism in the digital era." And, they say, "We could see this evolving into a system to provide tax credits for online subscriptions as well.”
They argue, convincingly, I think, that “We have to open the door to enlightened public policies and subsidies. We need our members of Congress and our leading scholars to approach this matter with the same urgency with which they would approach the threat of terrorism, pandemic, financial collapse or climate change.”
As I look back on that history I recited for you, I keep imagining that out there, somewhere, are individuals like Greeley and Bennett, Pulitzer and Hearst--those, to paraphrase Handlin, characterized as perspicacious and alive to the potentialities of this new public of the 21st century.
But if nothing at all is done, and newspapers are allowed to die or shrivel into mere compendiums of digital social notes and unsupported opinion, then I fear, as do others, that this wonderful experiment in democracy that we have enjoyed for the last 220 years could collapse and, with that, the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.