News & Views from 465 California Street

Decline of the Printed Word

Clint Reilly
Jun
26
2007

Newspaper readership is declining. The fact is reported by newspapers. Isn’t this like the dead man reading his own obituary? The death march of layoffs, budget cuts, disappearing revenues, downsizings is dutifully told each quarter when publicly-owned newspaper companies report earnings. These reports are proxies for an industry under siege. The internet, cable television, satellite radio, free news on the web are cited as the familiar culprits.

Exhibit number one is right here in the Bay Area. The San Francisco Chronicle has lost 350 million dollars since being purchased by the Hearst Corporation in 2000. Including a purchase cost in excess of 700 million, Hearst has now invested more than one billion in the Chronicle without so much as a dime returned. In fact, the Hearst Corporation has effectively subsidized the Chronicle for the last seven years. During these seven years of fiscal pestilence, Hearst has changed publishers at the Chronicle three times. Hearst has conducted two rounds of buyouts and layoffs effecting more than 35% of the reporters and editors. Hearst has announced a plan to outsource the printing of the newspaper to a Canadian company that will produce the paper for lower cost. What Hearst has not done is to announce a plan for how it will return the Chronicle to profitability and financially stabilize one of the Bay Areas most important civic institutions. At best, recent changes will save only 20 million of the more than fifty million per year the Chronicle is bleeding in red ink. And what about Adam Smith’s outmoded concept of a return on Hearst’s one billion dollar investment?

Imagine a San Francisco and Bay Area without the Chronicle. Los Angeles survives without an NFL franchise but could it grow and prosper without a Los Angeles Times? What if Hearst just turned out the lights at the Chronicle? Newspapers may be declining but has our society really come to grips with what that means for civic discourse?

The San Jose Mercury News is as much a part of the culture of Silicon Valley as the myth of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard and the garage where Hewlett Packard was founded. The Contra Costa Times is Contra Costa in a county known for its unique, thriving towns and cities. The IJ is Marin’s daily journal. Can television news, shot-gunned out to seven million bay area residents, really compete with the focused coverage of a daily newspaper on the arts, politics, government and vitally important local issues? Can a half hour or one hour news program give the same in-depth information as a 100 page daily newspaper or – more important – as the twelve major daily newspapers which cover the bay area community by community, five to seven days a week ?

What about the Internet? Are not more citizens connected? Can’t we just plug in to stories on Yahoo or search out the truth on Google? A recent study by the Pew Report showed that only three to four per cent of Americans get any local news on the Internet. Besides, 90% of the local news on the Internet comes from newspapers.

By passively accepting that newspapers will simply go the way of the dinosaur, we are also tacitly agreeing that our democratic future will be determined by ill-informed citizens who believe that reading and rigorous examination of objective facts is impossible in the age of new media. If government has a duty to serve, citizens have a responsibility to be informed. Since our Founding Fathers enshrined freedom of the press as the basis of a free society, Americans have accepted the challenge to be informed. However, as 21st century young Americans abandon the ritual of reading a daily newspaper, our democracy will certainly suffer. We cannot just attribute the lack of interest in the messy business of public affairs to a greater affinity for computers and electronic media. Maybe the pampered children of the postwar baby boomers just take democracy for granted.

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