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The Future of Newspapers -- Is There One?

Bad news for many of the nation's newspapers this week as drastic production and staff reductions take hold, and lead to reflection.

 

There was more bad news for the nation's newspapers -- and the dedicated people who work for them -- this week.

This time drastic staff and production reductions were announced at the New Orleans Times-Picayune and three other Southern newspapers, all of whom announced they were cutting operations to three-day-a-week publication and laying off hundreds of workers.

For a scribbler who used to press his feet more firmly against the floor of the newsroom at Fifth and Market streets whenever the Examiner presses started up -- this announcement was like expected but still unwanted surgery. We've seen it coming for some time, we just hate it when it finally happens.

I can remember leaving the Examiner building after one particularly exhausting shift one night in the early 80's, exhausted but elated with my first "hat trick" (three Page One stories) under my belt, nodding to Herb Caen and moving in a daze toward John's Grill and a late meal of steak and tomatoes with a side of martini. My adrenaline was peaking. There was no feeling like it in the world, a solid exclusive under my belt and my name on the front page -- three times. The city was hushed, almost expectant, my words being set to newsprint and readied for distribution to hundreds of thousands of people -- and dozens of canary cages.

John's was warm and inviting, not the normal pick for an early edition celebration but convivial, with the food and drink I wanted at that moment -- and on the way home. A beat cop was already at the bar, drinking his coffee Irish from a heavy ceramic mug. I got what I needed, went upstairs to see The Bird -- a replica of the fabled Maltese Falcon -- and caught a cab home, still buzzing. I couldn't sleep, and stayed up until the early editions began making the racks, and I hoofed it down to the corner to pull one out, the one with my stories on it, and remember holding it up close to my face to smell the fresh ink.

I still have that paper somewhere, maybe I'll dig it out. I could use the boost. The newspaper game started changing around the mid-80s, I felt, with increasing reliance on all-knowing consultants and owners paying for demographic studies to get a better understanding of their audience. I never quite got that, but there you go.

San Francisco, which once served as playground for seven daily newspapers, eventually culled the aspirants down to two, then one -- with the surviving Chronicle losing millions and going through its own increasingly painful cuts, cutting loose reporters and photographers who had bled for it. To many of us in the trenches it was painfully obvious we were living on borrowed time, that we needed a new model for delivery -- and the Internet fit that role just so. No presses. No printers. No unions. The future.

I left "the biz" in the mid-90s, unable to take the boardroom shenanigans any more and needing to decompress. In a matter of months I fell into a burgeoning new Internet industry and embraced the technology, seeing it for what it could do. I'm a believer -- but I still miss the presses.

A friend sent me a shot taken of the Times-Picayune staff as they were told they were being cut back this week. I recognized the looks of pain and shock and depression on their faces, people who had fought like Spartans to get their paper -- and vital information -- out to the people of New Orleans in the days following Katrina.

There's really not much you can say about things like this. Back in the day those lucky enough to still have a job would escort those who had just lost theirs to a suitably sleazy bar, knock back a drink and -- with that hollow conviviality that comes with situations like this -- tell each other stories of how good it all had been. And how much they cared for one another.

Maybe I'll dig out some of the old papers and take a trip down memory lane today. I generally prefer to look to the future than dwell in the past but maybe the headlines and the old bylines can bring something back for me -- and make me feel like that kid reporter standing with a newspaper in his hand, breathing in the smell of fresh ink so many years ago.

I could use some good news.

Chris Nicholson May 27, 2012 at 08:50 PM
The newspaper industry had at least 5-10 years to leverage their paper/offline dominance into a sustainable online model. They owned the content/creative and the distribution and the advertising relationships. The fatal mistakes were (i) not protecting their revenue streams by preemptive the ebays, craigslists, realtor.com and zillows of the world and (ii) not protecting their content by refusing to buy content from AP/Reuters/etc. that was available online for free (thus forcing AP/Reuters to make a hard decision instead of regarding online fees as purely incremental). The rest is just timing. News these days is either macro (national/intl) or micro (hyper local/ local). There is a core and an edge (or, rather, a Patchworks of edges) and nothing in the middle-- and distribution is free. I can't imagine ever subscribing to a paper newspaper ever again.
Jose May 28, 2012 at 03:37 AM
Thanks for sharing that JD. I enjoy your writing, and I can certainly feel the heady excitement of a young man having a huge day with THREE front page stories. Whooah!! As well as the sadness of a man in later years witnessing the decline of a profession he gave much of his life to. It's a little like seeing your old HS alma mater (and memories of real or imagined glory) bulldozed for a shopping center. I wish I had the antidote, but I have no good news to offer today. I am, after all, Moribund Dave, older brother to Debbie Downer. Where is Chatty Cathy when you need her anyway? Just keep writing!
Harry Jenkins May 28, 2012 at 06:45 AM
Develop interesting & unique content and people will pay for online access. I pay to access the NY Times on-line simply to read its parenting blog, Motherlode. I might read 3 - 5 other NY Times articles during the month and usually only if linked to it by a blog that I'm reading. I have no qualms paying for my NY Times access because Motherlode is the most interesting parenting blog that I've found and I want to read it, so it's worth the cost.
Lamorindan May 28, 2012 at 03:47 PM
What a wonderful "obituary". Your excellent prose still comes through whether on ink or on-line. It is still in the. blood ....
Andrew L. May 29, 2012 at 06:17 PM
It is very sad to see the quick decline of both newspapers and radio. Something has been lost that once meant something, indeed.
Regular Guy May 31, 2012 at 10:10 PM
Thanks for a great read. This story resembles many in business. Only rarely will a large entrenched company make the jump to a new business model when the environment requires it. They just remain in their puddle until it dries up, killing them. It's a consequence of human nature. We avoid large short-term pain, preferring smaller long-term pain that ends even worse. The prime example is how our government leaders are continuing to bankrupt us rather than cut back massively on promised spending. Our government leaders will make today's newspaper owners look like Steve Jobs.
pam palitz June 01, 2012 at 01:37 AM
No presses. No paper. No unions. The future ... No living wage for journalists. When I worked at the LA Her-Ex in the 70s, we would have a party at one end of the newsroom every Friday because we knew SOMEBODY would be leaving that week. Daily newspaper journalism has been in decline for decades, and it's so sad, because being a reporter is the most noble profession there is.

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