For a decade or more now, people in and out of the newspaper business have been trying to figure out what caused the bottom to drop out of the industry.
Was it the rise of the Internet? The cashing in by all but a couple of the renowned newspaper families, such as the Binghams in Louisville, the Cowleses in Des Moines, the Chandlers in Los Angeles? The rapacious demands of Wall Street after many major newspapers were snapped up by publicly owned companies?
All of those and other factors have been fingered by various experts as the bogeyman that did in a lot of top-tier newspapers.
And now comes another viewpoint, presented by Jim O’Shea, a former top editor at both The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times. O’Shea’s new book, “The Deal From Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers,” was reviewed in the SundayBusiness section of this week’s New York Times.
The reviewer, Bryan Burrough, says this:
“Mr. O’Shea argues that what’s killing newspapers isn’t the Internet and other forces, but rather the way newspaper executives responded to those forces.”
Burrough goes on to quote from O’Shea’s book: “The lack of investment, the greed, incompetence, corruption, hypocrisy and downright arrogance of people who put their interests ahead of the public’s are responsible for the state of the newspaper industry today.”
Now that’s an angry and eloquent sentence.
O’Shea backs up his assertion largely by chronicling a newspaper deal that went terribly wrong and wrecked what once had been two great chains — Tribune (Chicago Tribune and others) and Times-Mirror (Los Angeles Times and others). Suffice it to say the papers ended up in the hands of a goofy Chicago investor named Sam Zell, who knew nothing about newspapers and who hired a bunch of former radio DJs and executives to run the chain.
He’s now out, but the Tribune chain is in bankruptcy, and the 10 daily papers in the Tribune chain are a shadow of their former selves.
Papers like The Kansas City Star, the Omaha World-Herald and the St. Louis-Post Dispatch are lucky in that they have managed to avoid the clutches of thoroughly greedy people…although they, too, have fallen far and fast.
I have a different perspective on the implosion of newspapers. I think the crumbling of demand for the daily, local paper was as inevitable as the rise of “riverboat casinos.”
The winds of change started rather slowly but accelerated to the point that we in the newspaper business (I’m a 37-year veteran) were swept up and away, and there was little we could have done to prevent it.
The advent of the Internet? Yes, that definitely played a part. But what set the stage for that?
The pace of society was already gaining steam before the Internet came along. More people were relying on TV for information and entertainment, people were working longer hours, more and more women were going into the work force, people had less time to read newspapers and they were less interested in reading newspapers.
Ask any circulation supervisor at just about any paper in the country and he or she will tell you this sentence is what they hear most often when people call in to cancel their subscriptions: “I don’t have time to read it.”
We in the business couldn’t grasp the climate change because writing the paper and reading it was our business; it was what our lives revolved around. You bet we had time to read the paper; that’s where most of our story ideas came from.
Yes, some greedy people got in there and made the situation a lot worse and sullied the reputations of some formerly high-class papers. But, in retrospect, I don’t think anything could have stopped the overall implosion. Even if we had reacted quickly and embraced the Internet and started charging for online content at the outset, I think circulation, advertising and readership still would have plummeted.
I mentioned that it was the demand for the local, daily paper that hit the skids. Meanwhile, national papers like The Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today are still doing relatively well. And even though the New York Times Company (NYT) is a public company, the Sulzberger family still holds a majority interest and has the resources to run the paper as it should be run, putting lots and lots of money into the editorial side.
Many people, like me, who still need a substantive paper with a heavy emphasis on world and national news have gravitated to The Times. I take The Star, which I read first, and then I turn to The Times. I’ve got the time (retired five years ago), and my interest in newspapers has never flagged.
But the time is a luxury that most people don’t have, and the interest is… well, it’s an interest that many people just don’t have any longer.
I’m not saying that’s bad, that’s just the way it is, and that’s what’s responsible for the state of the newspaper industry today.