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March 1, 2009
David Warsh, Proprietor


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What Comes After a Golden Age?

“The Paper” is a 1994 film by director Ron Howard that is highly esteemed by newspaper folk.  The background is the competition between a couple of New York City dailies, a tab not unlike the New York Daily News and a broadsheet resembling The New York Times. 

 

The hero and heroine are the tab’s city editor and his reporter wife (Michael Keaton and Marisa Tomei) collaborating to break a local story of cover-up and injustice, while (a) he is urged by a self-absorbed broadsheet editor (Spaulding Gray) to defect from the tab in order to “cover the world,” and (b) she manages his parents and has a baby. Meanwhile, their amoral boss, the tab’s ambitious managing editor (Glenn Close), besieged by rising decorator bills, hits up her boss for a big raise.  The editor of the paper (Robert Duvall) sits her down to tell her a story. It won’t take a minute, he says.

In ’68, a bunch of us that were covering the Olympics in Grenoble decided to go to the best restaurant in town. Now the menu didn’t have any prices, but we were on expense accounts and we figured screw it, got drunk. There ended up, I don’t know, being fifteen or twenty of us at the table. And when the check came, woo, it was $9000!  So there we are, all starting to point fingers, we’re trying to remember who invited who, we’re talking about going down to Western Union to get money cabled. And just when it was starting to get really embarrassing, this funny little guy at the next table called the maitre d’ over, drew a couple of squiggly lines on a napkin, signed his name to it, winked at us, and that was that. The old guy was Pablo Picasso. And that napkin paid our bill.

The people we cover, we move in their world, but it is their world.  You can’t keep up. If you try to make this job about the money, you’ll just make yourself miserable. Because we don’t get the money. Never have, never will.

I remembered that scene one day recently while sitting in a Starbucks, waiting for a source to arrive. A single New York Times was left on the rack next to my chair. I watched as one customer after another picked it up, looked at it for the length of time it took the person at the head of the line to be served, and put it down again. No wonder the expense side of the ledger is beginning to look like that $9000 dinner in Grenoble. Moreover, it is the entire industry that has been caught short.  And this time there is no guy with a wink and napkin. Instead, there’s a Mexican oligarch, a series of bankruptcy judges and, of course, Rupert Murdoch.

 (For a non-fiction portrayal of the world we have lost, fuller and much more fine-grained than the film, but with most of the same elements, see Robert H. Phelps’ God and the Editor: My Search for Meaning at the New York Times, which will be published next month by Syracuse University Press.  The jacket features this endorsement by Russell Baker, the Times’ premier columnist for many years:

This is the best, truest, most revealing insider’s story ever published about life at The New York Times during the golden age of print journalism. The Pentagon Papers, Watergate, the office politicking that made the Times a Machiavellian delight – Phelps was in the thick of it all and tells it with the care and precision of a great editor.)

The newspaper industry has entered a period of cataclysmic change.  Some good old papers are shutting down. Others are reorganizing their debts under bankruptcy protection. Even the most successful are jacking up prices, experimenting wildly with their digital and print editions. Magazines, too. 

 

Yet reports of the impending death of print are greatly exaggerated. At an Economics Bloggers Forum in Kansas City last week, sponsored by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, I made five points that I thought could be defended. 

 

1. Newspapers have survived three big challenges to their authority: the rise of general interest magazines from the1890s, of radio news from the 1920s, and television news from the 1950s. Each time newspapers got on top of the competition by entering the new businesses themselves, and by extending their coverage of their rivals’ spheres. 

 

2. The Internet is the biggest challenge yet. Print journalism is a classic two-sided market. Its franchise stems from its ability to bring readers and advertisers together.  The Web breaks up both sides of the near-monopoly that the newspaper has enjoyed. Instead of finding the news on their front porch, the mailbox or the office ticker, readers now find it wherever they like, on their computer, their Kindle, their cell phone, and in whatever degree of detail they wish. Advertisers have naturally followed them to the Web – especially the categories on which newspapers formerly had an almost exclusive claim, classified and help-wanted advertising. Search advertising is very important, but almost certainly experiencing a bubble which, when it collapses, will see significant revenue flowing back to print. (See Google vice president Jonathan Rosenberg’s recent From the Height of This Place if you have doubts.) The Web also makes it much easier for new enterprises like Politico to enter the news-gathering business, slicing away further at newspapers’ and magazines’ once-generous margins. 

 

3. Yet print has strong advantages. It is easy to read, to share, to trust (it’s permanent), to keep. But the main thing about a newspaper is that space in it is finite and scarce – it only appears once a day.  All day long editors deliberate and make judgments about what to cover, and how to play it. (Another good thing about “The Paper,” incidentally, is that it depicts fairly accurately both the morning and afternoon editors’ budget meetings that are the heart and soul of what a newspapers does – every bit as much as reporters’ exertions and columnists’ cogitations.) Times columnist David Carr famously lamented that what print needs is its own IPod, a device that would allow it to eke out a more modest living selling individual units at 99 cents apiece – overlooking that such a device already exists, in the form of its daily print edition. 

 

4. Who is going to read print newspapers in the future? People in cities. People with good jobs for whom the convenience and status is worth more than the money. People who seek to influence newspapers to affect public policy. People whom advertisers wish to reach.  What kind of staff the revenue stream will support remains to be seen. Analyst Henry Blodgett has estimated that no more than a quarter of the $42 billion spent on newspaper advertising in 2007 will remain with the papers ten years from now. Suppose he’s right – but that an additional $10 billion in revenue flows to their online advertising. Even at half their present size, newspapers can easily remain at the top of the chain of explanatory journalism. The Financial Times, among newspapers, and The Economist, among weeklies, remain the models, deliberate with their space and readers’ time. 

 

5. Newspapers, at least, are thoroughly symbiotic with the blogosphere, that portion of the World Wide Web in which commentary and criticism thrives. The blogosphere is many things – infinite op-ed page, searchable talk radio, document store-room and marketing tool, identity-shaper and entertainment medium. The collaborative filtering mechanism operating through the exchange of links that is its key feature means that the blogosphere doesn’t need print media to create its own most-read and top-forty lists. 

 

But a quick look at Technorati’s Top 100 Popular Blogs discloses that, of the 35 of them that can be described as mainstream news and commentary, 19 are start-ups (Huffington Post, Boing Boing, Daily Kos, Talking Points, etc.), while 16 are affiliates of newspapers, magazines and television networks (Time, Wired, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Review, ABC, etc.) And of the three economic blogs on the list (Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics, Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution and Greg Mankiw’s Blog), all are by authors who regularly write for the Times. Newspapers are well on their way to placing the blogosphere in the same essentially friendly but broadly subordinate role as the realms of magazines, radio and television. And while excitement was high at Kauffman’s Foundation’s Economics Bloggers Forum, it was a magazine journalist, Michael Mandel, of BusinessWeek, who starred in conversations about the origins of the financial crisis.

The agony in the world of print journalism is very great. The scale of its business must adjust to the Starbucks world, and to an age in which snippets may be freely copied as never before. Once they do, however, their future once again will be bright. And society will enjoy plenty of competition from the blogosphere, even in one-paper towns. What comes after a golden age?  A much more complicated world.

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