It seems hopeless. How can the newspaper industry survive the Internet? On the one hand, newspapers are expected to supply their content free on the Web. On the other hand, their most profitable advertising--classifieds--is being lost to sites like Craigslist. And display advertising is close behind. Meanwhile, there is the blog terror: people are getting their understanding of the world from random lunatics riffing in their underwear, rather than professional journalists with standards and passports.
Ten years ago, it was a challenge for websites to get people to spend time for pleasure in front of a computer screen. "Your problem will be solved actuarially," a computer-sciences professor assured a group of Web pioneers, and sure enough, it was. Now the problem is to get people under 50 or so to pick up a newspaper. Damp or encased in plastic bags, or both, and planted in the bushes outside where it's cold, full of news that is cold too because it has been sitting around for hours, the home-delivered newspaper is an archaic object. Who needs it? You can sit down at your laptop and enjoy that same newspaper or any other newspaper in the world. Or you can skip the newspapers and go to some site that makes the news more entertaining or politically simpatico. And where do these wannabes get most of their information? From newspapers, of course. But that is mere irony. It doesn't pay the cost of a Baghdad bureau.
Newspaper angst is now focused on the Los Angeles Times, where I was editorial and opinion editor in 2004 and '05. Long the industry's leading example of needless excellence, the Times has had bureaus around the world, a huge Washington staff and so on. Yet it had a near monopoly in its own town and made little attempt to compete elsewhere. So what was the point?
The Tribune Co. of Chicago, which bought the L.A. Times six years ago, has been asking that question and answering it with demands for cuts in budget and staff. One might ask what the point of the Tribune approach is as well. The Tribune paid a premium for a premium paper and seems intent on dragging it down into mediocrity. That may improve margins in the short run, but it does nothing to address the fundamental crisis of newspapers. Two weeks ago the Times's editor and publisher publicly refused to chop any further, which doesn't address the crisis either.
Some believe that the answer is to restore local ownership. Newspapers were born free, and yet everywhere they are in chains, like Gannett. Fueled by noblesse oblige and municipal pride, a wealthy local won't need to squeeze the last dollar out of the business. Just look at the Sulzbergers of the New York Times and the Grahams of the Washington Post. Ah, but there is a difference between folks who get rich owning a newspaper and folks who get rich and then buy a newspaper. As a rule, rich folks don't buy expensive toys for other people to play with.