Talk: Newspapers are dying

Dateline: Fri 12 Jun 2009

The Public Relations Society of America, Hoosier chapter, invited me to speak Wednesday at their monthly meeting. The topic? "What the heck are newspapers?" About 75 people attended the luncheon/meeting at the Downtown Hilton Hotel.

So what the heck are newspapers? Only the lifeblood of society, historically, but everybody knows that. And trust me, there was a lot of throat-clearing on my part on that aspect; my romance with newspapers will never end.

Here are some of the sources used to research the preparation: "A Treasury of Great Reporing," (1949); Columbia Journalism Review "Looking for Light," about the Philadelphia Inquirer's troubles, with a bigger focus on the industry; "What Happens When Gannett Takes Over," also CJR, targeted on the changes at the Louisville Courier Journal and the Des Moines Register under Gannett; "The Demise of Investigative Journalism in American Newspapers," by Susumu Shimoyma, a former grad student at Columbia who visited the Indianapolis Star in 1990-91 to write a damning treatsie on changes (demise of investigative reporting) since the company went public in 1989; Clay Shirky's fabulous internet essay, "Thinking the Unthinkable," about newspapers dying, and the increasingly well-known story about water told by David Foster Wallace at his Kenyon College address in 2005. "What the hell is water?". Oh, one other that deserves mentioning: A review of James Squires' book on corporate journalism: "Extra Extra Read All About It!" He was an editor at the Chicago Trib and nailed the monster (corporate greed) long before many of us did...

This list is for the scholars in the room. For the rest  of us, the gist was this: papers were fat, dumb and happy, essentially, or feisty, vigorous and alive, until famlies that typically owned the big metro dailies began selling them off as early as the 1960s to avoid heavy federal inheritance taxes. Corporations moved in, and monopolies and bean-counting began.

The Star -- well-grounded in a conservative, lucrative pro-paper market -- always made good returns -- 7 to 8 percent -- and up to 13 percent in the 1990s. The Star went public in 1989, when Eugene S. Pulliam was still living but certain family members insisted on busting up the trust his father Eugene C. Pulliam had created. Even then, Gannett had its foot in the door: Mal Applegate, hired as publisher and general manager, was a former Gannetteer; so was the fellow sent to Arizona, to run the Pulliam papers there.

Cutting to the chase: for all the flaws of newspapers during the 1990s and beyond -- not getting the Internet, not changing quickly enough, too much experimentation, Craig's List effect on ad dollars and so on -- it is Greed in the form of these huge corporate owners that have done newspapers in, that are sucking dry their spirit, laying off reporters, breeding low morale, etc. Killing the baby.

Gannett likes pre-tax profit margins of 25 to 27 percent; that has made it a Wall Street flavor of the week, but a lousy place to work in some regards and a producer of more indifferent journalism than not. Under the leadership model set by Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today and former Gannett boss, the creator of charticles and champion of "shorter is better" -- his autobiography is "S.O.B." -- Gannett has continued to expect higher profits every year.

The last paper in the U.S., according to a University of North Carolina journalism prof, will fall on doorsteps in April 2043. It may very well be the Star -- no joke. Gannett is "proud" of its flagship papers and the Star continues to make money for its big bosses -- this market is incredibly solid for newspapers, despite all the flare-ups, furloughs, etc.

Main point: newspapers will die (altho there will always be a niche audience for those who want paper and those willing to produce it). But journalism will not. As Clay Shirky noted, the idea for the future -- what will replace newspapers -- is probably incubating in the head of some 19-year-old kid....

From the 'History of Reporting" -- the first "news" story is identified in that tome as being about the execution fo a witch in Germany in 1597. Some enterprising soul who witnessed the event used the fairly new printing press to write up multiple copies and hawk it. The title: THE WITHCH WALTPURGA IS TRIED AND SENTENCED FOR HER WANTON RENDEMOUZ WITH THE DEVIL"

Corporations such as Gannett -- just like GM destroyed American cars -- will kill newspapers in time. You can take that to the bank, or your broker.

But they cannot kill the spirit that fuels journalistic endeavors. Reporting will always be around.

If anyone wants a copy of the speech, shoot me an email.

My thanks to Courtney Kasinger for inviting me. We worked together when she was at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the White River fish kill story was breaking. She is now with Choices, promoting facilities and homes for children needing those services.

Great crowd; great questions. Many many thanks for caring.






B2 [unverified] said:

Great post, Ruth. Good insights.

2009-06-12 08:06:59

ruthholl [Member] said:

The history as outlined in some of these research papers is so fascinating. The Japanese student was at the paper just as Gannett was moving in, as I noted; in fact, the Pulliams apparently had an offer from Gannett for $1.5 bil in the early 1990s. The writing has been on the wall a looooong time.
The comparison to the auto industry is pretty solid. Thanks!

2009-06-12 08:33:46

joe stuteville [unverified] said:

Interesting thoughts there, Ruth. might i get a copy of your remarks?

2009-06-12 09:32:39

ruthholl [Member] said:

Yes, Joe. I will take care of it later tonight or tomorrow -- am with Ezra for the rest of the day, so not a lot of time to flex.
Thank you!
The sources are amazing, which is why I wanted to list all of them....will send you the Kenyon address, too.

2009-06-12 13:12:57

Jessica [unverified] said:

Ruth: I'd also like a copy. Thanks!

2009-06-12 15:09:33

hendy [Member] said:

Hmmm. Lightweight, and possibly superficial.

Publishing has been around for along time, but the ability for megacorps to step in and use combines resources and asset control makes them seemingly more efficient, until they forget who the customer is, and what the customer wants. The value proposition ignorance routine killed GM and Chrysler and is hurting Ford and so many others. Good riddance. (Note: will someone please tell Obama that it's ok to kick the living hell out of the banking and financial system; we approve.. and if he has real mettle, the freaking oil companies).

News is still a thriving business. It just has new and more efficient channels of distribution.

Here's the advice: put them out of misery and cancel your subscription. We'll get along without them, but there will always be channels for news distribution with integrity. It is the way things are.

2009-06-12 21:47:34

Whitebeard [unverified] said:

"The last paper in the U.S., according to a University of North Carolina journalism prof, will fall on doorsteps in April 2043."

What has that journalism prof been smoking?

If newspapers are still "falling on doorsteps" five years from now, I will eat one for my breakfast.

I suppose some expert said this about the survival of the blacksmith profession after the first
automobiles started coughing and belching their way
down Washington Street.

Maybe the journalism prof is finding it much more difficult to recruit new poor little lambs to his J-program.

"Plastics, son....plastics!"

2009-06-12 23:53:45

Tom Greenacres [unverified] said:

"News is still a thriving business. It just has new and more efficient channels of distribution"

My reservation about who is going to pay for this is unresolved. Who is going to pay for a scrupulous reporter to spend days wading through court records, corporate reports, government emails? Who will file for release of records under the FIA? Who will pay for reporters' travel? Who will employ editors that exercise standards of accuracy and verification?

Blogs are not news reporting organizations. Absent newspapers, who does the work? And please, vaporwarish terms like "new channels of distribution" don't explain exactly what medium is going to replace newspapers.

And so it goes- the stupefication of America.

2009-06-13 07:09:15

hendy [Member] said:

Who files FIA queries? Guys like me that don't write for newspapers. I write instead, for online zines and my own two blogs.

I do tech writing. Lots of it. I dig. I get limos full of PR people in my humble driveway so that their product managers can put little portable machines with presentations on my dining room table and 'educate' me.

Then they wonder how they're turned on their ear when I do the research, find out horrible things about their stuff, then write about it, calling them as fairly as is reasonable. My audience is the reader. They pay ultimately pay my bills.

And Tom, "new channels of distribution" isn't in Dutch or in Swahili. It's English for exactly what it is: in this case, non-paper distribution of news information. Read McLuhan to understand it better.

Who pays for it? The ecosystems are starting to emerge. They're primitive. But remember the ink is no longer by the barrel, so to speak-- it's online if 'Darwinian' sourcing. The better examples are the Huffington Post, and Salon.Com. Even the online version of the WSJ has more brains than its print version (most things that Rupert Murdoch do are a bad example, however).

2009-06-13 15:34:27

ProspectorBill [unverified] said:

Kudas to pointing out that if you pull a cord, a light will come on. Of course the paper is dead because it sees only the problems and not the opportunities. Nuf said on that. To review the Star Faithful readers. They wouldn't change a flat tire till spring so as not to upset some long dead ancestor. I actually had a client tell my that's how grandpa did it and that's how I'm going to do it. I don't care if the Star eats up 89% of our annual budget.

These are some great and weird times.

2009-06-13 17:19:20

Tom Greenacres [unverified] said:

hendy, nothing you said actually illustrates how blogging provides you with a living. I gather you are a freelance tech writer (somthing I myself have done), which provides your livlihood. And your blog, by apparent admission, focuses on tech issues.

How is this journalism, much less a substitute for newspapers?

I have the strong impression that new media has many youngish advocates simply because they are new and newspapers have many critics because, well, they are old.

Wittness the superficiality and time consuming nonsense of twitter, which seems to bear out Andy's observation (a warning as it turns out) that we will all have our 15 minutes of fame. It is indeed the medium and not the message. Content has been derailed.

2009-06-14 07:04:39

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Attaboy, Tom. Keepin' it real. Regardless what folks may claim, not everyone is a journalist.

2009-06-14 17:32:15

hendy [Member] said:

Tom, TTT,

I would agree that I'm not a journalist. However, I aid them. I make a clear distinction between what I cover as news (rare) in the journalistic sense, and what I otherwise write-- which is opinion, research, and you'll know which is what by reading me. I make more $$$ at it than rote journalism, but I have admiration for those that endeavor real journalism, hence this blog and this post.

I blog. Actually I rant. It's insignificant except as a personal stress reliever. I'm not trying to build an audience. I've had my 15 min of fame several times, and you can't cash fame. I didn't want it. My endeavor's been technology transfer, and I've succeeded at that.

Journalism is a key element of a newspaper, but it's not the only thing. As regards The Star, I've been without now for a total of three weeks. I'm jonesing for three things: the comics, Erica Smith's Monday tech rub, and to swear at Varvel's 'editorial cartoon'. Nothing more, really. I rob them by getting the obits online. I don't read their advertising, and never have. I don't clip coupons because I shop at farmer's markets, go to the same hardware store whether stuff is on sale or not, and could care less about the sorry state of sports in the world.

I really liked to read Dan Carpenter. Katzenberger was fun to read if only to find out which PR person he'd been talking to recently. There are other good reporters at The Star that I'm sliming by omission. But I'm outta there. Bye bye, gone, stopped the delivery. If you want to make a statement, you should, too.

2009-06-14 20:51:12

Tom Greenacres [unverified] said:

hendy, I find much to agree with in your comment above, especially the last 2 grafs.

But I don't agree there's more to a newspaper than journalism. Without it you have just another advert handout. (And, judging by the number of inserts in the Star, the newspaper has in fact become a mere delivery machine for advertising; I wonder what the ratio of news to advertising is if you measure column inches in the inserts?! Not that the ratio standard has ANY significance any longer).

I happily confess to being a Neanderthal on some issues, technology likely one of them, though I made my living for more than a decade in the IT business. But I was lucky enough to have a near-lifelong immersion in newspapers and remember the music of linotypes. I will continue to drink the kool-ade: without newspapers we will NOT have an informed society and without being informed we will not remain free. As it is the handful of media oligarchs are slowly but relentlessly putting their thumbprints on everything we see, read and hear.

(I also do not like Varvel; he's a pretty good artist but he is also a Far Righty without a sense of humor, which may be redundant.)

2009-06-15 07:42:03

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

We're getting caught in semantics here, but the spirit is laudable.

But let's not confuse journalism with blogging. Not even in the same ballpark.

You "aid" them? I almost fell outta my chair on that one.

2009-06-15 13:22:39

hendy [Member] said:

Tom, TTT:

Yeah... been sending info to tech <em>journalists</em> for decades. I occasionally do news in the tech world, but I'm a researcher otherwise, and publish through trade journals. Today: new research piece that has 129K hits on its first day.... haven't checked digg or twitter. It's not journalism, it's research. One PR wag, back in 1998, estimated that my picture had been printed about 40million times in trade journals, trade show dailys, and so on-- not counting 'net impressions. Bah. I'm glad I was smiling in the pic, I guess.

And I blog for stress relief. It's opinion. When you read what I write, you'll know the difference immediately. I have a column out in the IBJ this week: also opinion. It's charity work for Maurer.

The fifteen minutes of fame thing is highly overrated. I've had that fifteen minutes several times. You can't cash it. As I get much older, I find it's haunting. I don't want it.

Journalism needs a place, and newspapers were once the place. Journalism is not Omar Sharif on Bridge. Journalism is not People Movements or horoscopes. Journalism, e.g. the front of the book, has some well known definitions. And now, it's been distorted mightily with clear and hidden agenda and bias, both in the form of opinion and advertorial. Yet what's not journalism is masquerading as the real thing, and for years, The Star (and News) had a lot of that. It still does.... although it's more transparent now-- the custom publishing crap generates plentiful bile in me.

But no more.

I'm heading to Bloomington, one of the last bastions of hippie gravel pit-loving liberals. I'm growing my hair long, and driving maybe a Volvo. It's the liberal's answer to moving to Branson MO. Or Carmel.

2009-06-15 14:25:39

Whitebeard [unverified] said:

I'm heading to Bloomington, one of the last bastions of hippie gravel pit-loving liberals. I'm growing my hair long, and driving maybe a Volvo.

Do you have an extra seat on the VW bus?

My hair won't grow long these days - except in my ears - but I do have in my possession some cheap, but fragrant, patchouli oil from the Dollar General Store and a half-bottle of Boone's Farm strawberry wine.

Peace, love, rock and roll and saw palmetto for the prostate.

2009-06-15 23:56:34

hendy [Member] said:

Hop on the bus, WB. There's a rock concert somewhere with some mud, nood people, and beads.

We're gonna put flowers down the barrels of the soldier's rifles, eat tofu, and moon the troopers. A quick skinny dip into the pool of life, followed by random verses from The Whole Earth Catalog will be preached, and we'll march lockstep with The King-- that's MLK!-- tell everyone's free.

Then, and only then, will we charge admittance.

Probably to a sanitarium.

2009-06-16 09:32:12

Tom Greenacres [unverified] said:

"Hop on the bus, WB. There's a rock concert somewhere with some mud, nood people, and beads."

I'm afraid these are the ones that became bankers, real estate moguls and technology titans and now play with their beads and shred subpoenas in exotic places like Bora Bora.

The same generation that gave us nood dancing, hookah happiness and groovin also gave us the bankruptcy of GM, the corruption of Wall Street and the disappearance of 401Ks.

2009-06-16 11:41:02

hendy [Member] said:

Yes, there have been stinkers.

There have also been those that elevated MLK's birthday to a holiday, those that founded and funded with money and sweat, Habitats for Humanity. Some of us researched what was causing climate change, and sounded the alarm. A few of us noted that the oceans are being destroyed of life, and rammed our ships against the megatrawlers.

We railed when weapons of mass destruction were said to be in Iraq-- who was also purported to be a stronghold and ally of Al Q(u)aeda.

We pushed against the control of corporations above the aims of the government, and therefore of the people that it was elected to serve. We screamed when the poverty gap became huge. We roiled against the auto-culture, the lopsided financing of the FAA over mass transit, the stripmall mania, the white flight to the suburbs, the construction of stadiums over constructions of sidewalks and sewers, and the injustices of Enron, MCI/WorldCom, and so many others.

We bore the standards of equal taxation, the prison of fossil fuels, the lies and damned lies of propaganda machines, the good-old-boy $29 case of Coca Cola in Afghanistan sales, and the bodies that came home in bags from wars that should not have been fought.

We cringed. We wept. We protested. We watched in abject horror as the Twin Towers fell. We heard the lies, the deceit, the innuendo, the false rumors.

We watched Indiana State funding become a joke, even a laughing stock, while the Library Board built a monument to itself, as did Peterson with his airport terminal, and his predecessors with their tax exempt mall and gifts of ground to the Simons.

We did all these things. Can you blame us for smoking a hookah now and then?

2009-06-16 13:12:51

Whitebeard [unverified] said:

Right on, brother Hendy!

Power to the people, right on. I'm of "that generation." I've worked hard, treated people well, paid my taxes, have never screwed anyone out of anything, and I've loved and fed my kid and our two dachshunds.

I'm relatively poor, but don't have any trouble going to sleep at night.

And I still wear my tie-dye t-shirts like a badge of

Which they are.

2009-06-16 14:40:07

Tom Greenacres [unverified] said:

Pretty good comeback, hendy.

2009-06-17 07:01:24

mediajackal [unverified] said:


Could I have a copy of the speech?

I need to absorb that before responding to some of the above posts.

2009-06-17 09:57:45

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