Death of the American newspaper?

February 16th, 2009

Godfrey Hodgson, just back from a visit the US, analyses the crisis facing American newspapers.

The American newspaper press, a proud and lively enterprise that has been the clarion of American values and the central nervous system of the American people since colonial times, is now financially, technologically and culturally in desperate straits.

The Chicago Tribune company, owner of the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun and several other important papers as well as the Trib, is bankrupt. The Wall Street Journal has been sold (to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation) and the Boston Globe has been sold to the New York Times. The Miami Herald, the third biggest circulation in the country, is bankrupt, and so is the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

The New York Times, the most admired, most trusted (in spite of some recent hiccups) and once unassailably prosperous leader of the industry, has had to put its brand new building up for sale and has borrowed money from a Mexican billionaire at 14 per cent because its credit in New York has run out. For most new Yorkers and most journalists, that in itself is unimaginable.

Godfrey Hodgson, just back from a visit to the US, analyses the crisis facing American newspapers.

The crisis is not new. For several years now, conference and industry meetings have been told by leading publishers that the newspaper is dead. Nor is there any mystery about the reason for the industry’s morbidity. Advertising, that in recent decades has provided roughly 80 per cent of newspaper revenue, has migrated to the Internet. Small ads for homes and cars, in particular, have dried up. The credit freeze and the economic crisis have made the situation worse, but the trend was fully established before the downturn began.

At the same the demand for news from newspapers has shrunk. Americans can get news from television and radio, long-established competitors. They can also get an attennuated summary of the news from new technologies: from computers, cell[hones, iPhones, Blackberries and many other sources.

This new wave of competition has actually helped to obscure the depth of the crisis. Americans may be conservative, but they are also neophiliacs. They are proud of the fact that their economic system creates endless new devices from which some news can be gleaned. If newspapers are old, to some American minds, then all the more reason for them to be replaced by some digital gizmo.

When reporters collect opinions from journalists about the situation, many of them respond to the bad news almost with pride. Americans don’t have time these days to read the paper in a leisurely way over their breakfast cereal, one man boasted, as if this were a sign of economic progress, rather than evidence of the penury of a vital industry.

It is true that an enormous diet of news of a kind is available online in various forms. It is also true that the demise of the commercial-professional model of the newspaper as it has been known in the United States, the other English-speaking countries and Western and Central Europe for a hundred years and more, will deprive the world of an irreplaceable resource. The problem is that no one has found a way of generating revenues from new media on a scale that could begin to replace the money needed for serious news coverage.

Newspaper pundits look to their own newspaper websites to replace the vanished advertising in the daily paper. Many websites, not least those of the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, are excellent, But they pay for only a fraction of the cost of maintaining the news organizations that feed them. And the news organizations themselves have already slashed the amount they spend on news gathering.

The cuts have fallen most heavily on the most important and most expensive parts of the system: on national and foreign news. In the mid-1980s, 600 US newspapers maintained bureaux in Washington. Now fewer than 300 do, and many of those are either represented by a single reporter or are part of a chain.

The bureaux have shrunk. Once the five newspapers in the Chicago Tribune group had 95 journalists in Washington between them. Now they employ 35.

Twenty years ago, Time magazine, for example, had more than 30 reporters in its Washington bureau: now it has six.

The total number of reporters in Washington has not declined. There are more newsletters and other specialist publications than ever, reporting specific industries or lobbying for particular causes. There are hundreds more foreign correspondents when I was a White House correspondent for a British paper in the 1960s.

Television has cut back in much the same way. ABC as gone from 46 journalists in its Washington bureau in 1985 to 15 today, CBS from 30 to 16.

The same is true of foreign bureaux. A survey by a Christian Science Monitor correspondent, Jill Carroll, for the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, found that the number of US newspaper foreign correspondents declined from 188 in 2002 to 141 in 2008. Two years ago the Boston Globe closed its last three foreign bureaux. Even those papers, like the Times and the Post, that have maintained foreign staffs have cut them back sharply. The amount and the proportion of foreign news in US papers has fallen precisely at the time when Americans need to understand the rest of the world more than at any time since World War II.

Wire services, too, have cut back their coverage both of national politics and of foreign news. Increasingly only business publications — the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the Economist — offer full service reporting of the world.

There are bright spots. One is the strength of serious radio. National Public Radio and the BBC cover the United States better than commercial American radio does. But television is less reassuring. Fox News has overtaken the three traditional networks in viewing figure, but not in the number of Washington correspondents or foreign bureaux.

Only CNN of the networks has kept a substantial overseas presence. Most of the other networks cover the world from three or four bureaux, in London, Tel Aviv, Beijing and Tokyo, for example. Too often, foreign stories are covered by “firemen”, US-based correspondents, often with no foreign languages, who are parachuted in and cover the story with little background. At worst, they get things seriously wrong; at best, they filter the world through American preconceptions.

The result is serious from the point of view of the society’s political health. Americans increasingly get their picture of their own national politics through the distorting lens of special interest journalism, and their picture of the outside world from rewritten wire service copy and ever briefer clips of TV footage.

Well-meaning persons have proposed alternative ways of supplying the vital services that newspapers have supplied since the late nineteenth century. It has been suggested, for example, that private charitable foundations might supply foreign news, or political news, or even comment of the kind that is carried on op.ed. pages.

It is hard to imagine a foundation that possessed the resources needed to run a first-rate news service and the self-restraint to resist the temptation to use its power over the news to promote its own particular interests or ideology. Can one imagine a news service run, for example, by the American Enterprise Institute?

The traditional capitalist model has served the world reasonably well for over a hundred years. Strangely, it has often worked best through institutions that bore the stamp of strong personalities. Sometimes these “press barons” (William Randolph Hearst, Max Beaverbrook, at times Rupert Murdoch) have misused their power to promote interests or causes such as war with Spain in 1898, Empire preference in the 1930s, or unregulated free market economics.

Some of the best news organizations have been run by families with a strong sense of the public interest: the Ochs/Sulzberger clan at the New York Times or the Meyer/Graham dynasty at the Washington Post are obvious examples, but there are many more in the history of American and other English-speaking journalism.

I was lucky enough to work for two publishers who were different from each other in almost every way, but who were both superb proprietors.

David Astor was a blueblood, a tall elegant man, educated at Eton and Balliol, scion of perhaps the wealthiest American family of all in his generation. He was a man of exquisite moral sensibility. He edited The Observer as well as owning it, and until it started losing ground and he began to lose interest in it, he used it skilfully and conscientiously to promote important causes in which he passionately believed.

Roy Thomson, in contrast, was a man of the Scots-Canadian people, a small town businessman who had done well in radio and local newspapers in Canada, then struck rich in commercial television (“a licence to print money”, he exclaimed with surprise) and North Sea oil in Britain. Roy took almost no interest in the day-to-day running of the Sunday Times, but he was no pushover, and he knew how to stand up for what we were trying to do. Once a furious Colonel David Stirling, epitome of the upper class tough, took exception to my critical reporting of his business ventures in Africa and the Middle East. He complained that I was harming Britain’s interests there. When Roy received Stirling, he was surprised to find me sitting there. “We never knowingly damage British interests”, said Roy, “but we do like to make up our own minds what they are!” And he showed Stirling the door.

What is necessary is to reinvent the rather subtle, because resilient, structures of the best of those old newspapers with a business model, as they say, that will somehow tap the financial potential of the internet and divert just enough of its resources to fund serious journalism.

It will not be easy. But neither technological wizardry nor reliance on tax-subsidized private charity will do the trick. The future of journalism will depend on creating institutions where business management, the investment model and professional journalism with its roots in reporting, work together to use the internet as the early twentieth century pioneers used high speed presses, display and classified advertising and intellectual curiosity in the first age of globalization.

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