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Dailies go Darwin

Reports of newspapers' death are exaggerated — but after the changes coming in 2009, will we still recognize them?
By ADAM REILLY  |  January 29, 2009


If you're a tree, you're probably feeling pretty good right now. We've long known that the traditional newspaper — a hard-copy compendium of the previous day's events, printed on an obscene amount of wood byproduct — was terminally ill. But two of 2008's big media developments — the Christian Science Monitor's plan to kill its daily print edition outright, and the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press's decision to radically scale back their print operations and refocus online — suggests that the traditional newspaper's death will come sooner than anyone imagined.

But the term "newspaper" has another meaning, too: it's an organization staffed with men and women who report and analyze the news for the public. Newspapers in this sense aren't about to go extinct. They are being reinvented, however. And judging from the almost unthinkable changes that transpired on the media landscape this past year — particularly over the past few months — this reinvention will reach unprecedented heights in 2009, with once-sacrosanct forms and practices being abruptly jettisoned and new models and methods assuming starring roles. As with biological evolution, some of this change will be beautiful, some of it will be ugly, and some of it will just . . . be. Here's a preview.

Future-of-media bigwig Jeff Jarvis earned some jeers when he suggested that the entire city of Philadelphia could be covered by a 35-person newsroom, rather than the 300-plus one currently in place at the Philadelphia Inquirer. In fact, though — and despite the unpleasant human costs — there's a strong case to be made for cuts that seem draconian, but that actually manage to put papers in the black.

I recently asked Jay Rosen, Jarvis's future-of-media peer and a professor of journalism at New York University, what he'd do if given the reins of a hypothetical midsize daily. "I'd be very tempted to cut immediately to a sustainable level and build from there," he answered. "Then what you do is, you hire new people every time you find new revenue, and you employ every method you can think of to do that. The debilitating thing is not knowing how far the cuts are going to go."

This may sound callous, but it makes a lot of sense. Even if you've still got your job at the Boston Globe, for example, you also know that the paper's reportedly losing $1 million a week, and that the status quo is untenable. That's not a good working environment. (The Boston Herald, which I recently cited as a likely candidate for extinction, may actually survive thanks to its brutal Jarvis/Rosen-style cutbacks: the newsroom is emaciated, but the paper seems to be on relatively firm financial ground.)

Of course, guys like Jarvis and Rosen don't actually have to run a paper — and the Herald could be an anomaly. How many publishers would dare to try this, especially at papers of record?

By way of an answer, consider what Detroit Free Press publisher David Hunke recently told National Public Radio: "We think it's time to quit sticking our heads a bit in the sand [and] taking incremental steps . . . in the name of hoping that it comes back to the way it used to be in years gone by."

The steady stream of buyouts and layoffs still haven't solved most papers' financial woes — but they have created an opening for new entities that can provide the sort of coverage papers can no longer generate themselves. Foreign-news startup GlobalPost is one example; the investigative-reporting startup ProPublica is another. But there's room for plenty more.

Case in point: what if six or seven experienced political journalists rented an office in Washington, DC — and offered to do localized political reporting for, say, every daily in the state of California? Given the ongoing evisceration of the DC press corps, these hypothetical entrepreneurs would likely do a brisk business. So, too, could any other outfit that went about intelligently covering a niche subject neglected for lack for funds. But nascent startups have to act fast, before content-sharing ventures involving legacy media (e.g., the just-announced Washington PostBaltimore Sun arrangement) do their work for them.

Think Sam Zell owning Tribune Co. is a bad idea? Spooked by Rupert Murdoch's abiding interest in the New York Times Co.? Then you probably see the developing story in Miami — where the real-estate-developer/sugar-magnate tandem of Jorge Perez and Alfonso Fanjul just might buy the Miami Herald from McClatchy — as a journalistic nightmare. But get used to this sort of thing: with newspaper companies struggling mightily (McClatchy, the Herald's corporate parent, saw its stock drop 95 percent this past year), some big-name papers are going to end up in the hands of people whose business interests should, in theory, be covered by their new toys.

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  Topics: Media -- Dont Quote Me , Bob Kempf, Jeff Jarvis, Jorge Perez,  More more >
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