25 things vanishing in America, part 2: The daily newspaper

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Ah, the joys of reading the paper over your cup of coffee in the morning. The pleasure of spending half a Sunday poring over the thick Sunday edition, the kids hunched over the comics on the living room floor. The domestic satisfaction of hearing the *thwap* of the morning edition landing on your porch late each night.

These are pleasures of another era, I'm afraid. The newspaper industry is terminal.

For a former member of the the Fourth Estate, there's nothing quite so gut-wrenching as watching the mighty titans of news fall. The list of papers entering bankruptcy or threatening to close outright reads, to me, at least, like the obituary of old friends.

The New York Times just mortgaged its own building to shore up its finances. The former jewels of the Knight-Ridder media empire, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Miami Herald, and the San Jose Mercury News have all suffered debilitating layoffs in an attempt to deal with severe drops in advertising and the fallout from too much leverage of its corporate owners. (Knight-Ridder was sold to another newspaper group in 2006, which then sold individual papers to other media groups). Even the Washington Post is reporting a life-threatening drop in earnings.

The Los Angeles Times, my home-town newspaper, was once a paper of national, even international renown. It had world-class coverage of national and local politics and its movie and film critics were arguably best in show. These days however it's a gutted, feeble shadow of its former self, having laid off or driven out most of its A-list journalists and now relying on blogs and three paragraph "local" stories by cub reporters with no context. Many suspect it will actually close (which is about as unimaginable as, say, General Motors going under....never mind. Sigh.)

The Rocky Mountain Daily News, based in Boulder, CO and affectionately known to journalists and locals as the "Rocky," ceased publication Friday, Feb. 27. The Hearst Corp., owner of the San Francisco Chronicle, has also said that unless the paper finds a buyer, unlikely in this environment, it too will close its doors.

The industry, which was severely contracting even back when I got into it 20-some odd years ago, has suffered from several ills. The change in technology we all know as the Internets has made moving information immediate and free, and it very quickly put an industry dependent on newsprint and delivery costs at a disadvantage. A whole generation has come up expecting to get its news as it happens. Even I, lifelong paper subscriber, canceled my subscription because I couldn't see the value in paying for yesterday's news tomorrow (nor could I stomach the dumbed-down content of my beloved L.A. Times)

Advertising, the lifeblood of newspapers, took it in the chops too, with the coming of Craigslist.org and countless other ways of advertising for cheap or free.

The corporatization of newspapers has never helped, either. Once scrappy, independently-owned voices, newspapers were snapped up by investment groups starting in the '80s, who then took to cost-cutting measures to wring double-digit profits out of them. These new corporate owners weren't immune to the leveraging orgy of the last decade, either, loading up their papers with unmanageable amounts of debt. Now with the economy on the rocks and credit frozen, this debt may be what kills off the industry for good.

In its place comes a wash of free information, including a glut of what pundits like to call "citizen journalism," in the guise of blogs, blog, blogs. Trouble is, while some blogs, such as Daily Kos (politics), The Big Picture (finance) and Deadline Hollywood (movie industry) indeed provide incredible reporting and insider insight, there are millions of others that do little more than provide biased information, badly written, with none of the checks and balances of traditional "journalism."

Take the ancient art of "criticism," for example. Time was you turned to a newspaper to read the critic's take on a movie, or a theater show, or architecture, and you knew you were getting a seasoned, professional take, written by somebody who had a depth of knowledge you didn't have. Remember (Gene) Siskel and (Robert) Ebert? The newspapers they started out at, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, are struggling to remain afloat. How many bloggers are there today with the gravitas and reach of these two? Can you name one?

There is a glimmer of hope. Micro-papers -- those newspapers that serve neighborhoods or smaller towns, will begin to enjoy a surge in circulation as citizens start to realize what they miss by having a local paper, with local advertising, information about school board doings and local politics. These small papers are almost always locally-owned, and have flown underneath the radar of corporate media, preserving their unique voice and mission.

Newspapers still do serve a purpose -- believe it or not, not everyone is connected to the Internets (are your grandparents?), and sometimes you want some local news to actually hold in your hand as you drink your morning coffee. Also, as my 12-year-old tells me, it's hard to read the comics or do the crossword puzzle on a screen. That's the wired generation talking.

I also must point out this: Our information now comes to us instantly...as long as the electricity is on. We never think about what would happen should the juice go off, but we should.

In 1989 the Loma Prieta earthquake knocked the San Francisco Bay Area off the grid for several days. The ink-stained wretches at the San Francisco Chronicle churned out a truncated edition the old-fashioned way -- on typewriters and another town's printing press that was still up -- and the edition quickly sold out to locals, desperate for information.

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