While the nation has been gripped by the ongoing melodrama over the survival of the automobile industry, another industry is shedding companies and employees at a dizzying pace. All across the country newspapers are announcing major cutbacks and making permanent changes that will forever change the face of print journalism in our country. The implications reach far beyond the local presence of the press to far greater issues concerning whether the press as an institution will continue to serve its civic role as the “fourth estate.”
Just two weeks ago the Tribune Company, a media giant that owns television stations along with such familiar daily imprints as The Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and Los Angeles Times, filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. The Star-Ledger of Newark, New Jersey, the state’s most widely read daily, is drowning in red ink and has offered buyouts to pare down staff, with many veteran journalists taking a walk. The Christian Science Monitor, one of the country’s best public affairs vehicles has decided to cease publication of the venerable paper and will produce only an online edition. The New York Times has put its magnificent, new corporate headquarters in Times Square up as collateral as the paper fights mounting losses. In Detroit, the Free Press will cut back home delivery to the weekends. It is an unprecedented downturn for the nation’s newspaper industry.
Some of the industry’s current troubles were predictable. For some time now readership has declined as more and more, people began to turn toward local television news and the Internet to get information. As readership has declined advertisers have been less inclined to pony up ad dollars and have started to shift placements to news and other web sites. The decline in circulation and revenue from retail sales combined with the loss of ad dollars has been deadly for newspapers. Making a bad situation worse, as the economy took a turn for the worse, newspapers were also affected by high oil prices and the increased costs of ink and paper. It is, perhaps the “perfect storm,” the alignment of events that have pushed many newspapers to the brink.
Whatever the cause, the outcome is clear. Fewer papers in print and less focus on the important issues of the day that impact all of our lives. It is not inconceivable that some cities will no longer have a local, daily newspaper. While few would have thought it possible, the current trend suggests that in some markets papers that are on life support may not survive. It was not too long ago that most cities had two daily newspapers in competition with each other. Whether it was the Baltimore Sun and Baltimore News American or the Newark Evening News and the Star-Ledger, communities were well served by a newspaper sector that felt responsible to be the “objective,” or as close to objective as possible, voice on critical issues such as public education, crime, health care, economic development, employment and politics. The failure of some of these papers and the fact that so many cities are now served by one newspaper has shortchanged the public at the very time these papers are needed most.
There is more to the loss of a newspaper than simply its disappearance. Think of any of the big stories of the past four or five decades, and how newspapers shaped public opinion – good and bad – and the eventual outcome. While broadcast television and radio certainly played a role in reporting these stories, it was newspapers that engaged over a longer period of time and shed light on what are often complex or volatile matters. And for all the press bashing that takes place, the absence of newspapers has a chilling effect on civic discourse and social relations. Not to mention the watchdog role that newspapers have come to play in holding government officials and corporations accountable; an important contribution as is evidenced by the current economic crisis.
While major newspapers are feeling the effects of the current economic downturn, smaller, community based weeklies have also been impacted albeit to a lesser extent for the moment. As the big players in the newspaper industry try to stay afloat, small weekly papers may have an opportunity to attract new readers if they can provide the community news that make them popular and some of the news coverage that can be found in a major daily.
This industry shakeout may also be an opportunity for Black newspapers to reclaim an audience. There was a time in this country when papers like The Amsterdam News, Pittsburgh Courier and Baltimore Afro-American, were required reading in the Black community during the Jim Crow and civil rights eras. It was these papers that the community relied upon for information on pertinent court decisions, government, social and faith based activities, and sports. The opening up of newsrooms in the late 1960's and 1970's, albeit reluctantly to Black journalists, served to siphon off talent and reduced the potential of the Black press to expand and improve. Still, the current economic crisis could be a window of opportunity for Black newspapers if they can think creatively about their product, innovate through the use of technology, maintain a consistent level of quality, be relevant and re-connect to the communities that are most in need of the presence of a strong press corps. In this period of economic uncertainty, a rejuvenated Black press could increase its market share if it provides the news and information that is most relevant to the needs of readers in its backyard.