THE DECLINE OF THE DAILY NEWSPAPER….There’s been lots of blog talk about the decline of newspapers over the past few days. A lot of it focuses on the fact that although the raw number of news outlets has decreased, in practical terms we all have access to far more news than we used to. And that’s true for now. But here’s the problem:
Serious, daily, national reporting is overwhelmingly the preserve of a tiny handful of big-city newspapers with large staffs and worldwide bureaus. Of these, the Los Angeles Times is under pressure to downsize by its parent company, as is the Washington Post. Knight Ridder was recently purchased by McClatchy. And every big-metro daily in the country, including the still-independent New York Times, is under relentless pressure from deteriorating circulation, poor demographics, loss of classified ad revenue to the Internet, and the decline of urban department stores — storms that private owners might have weathered but institutional investors have no stomach for.
When these dailies succumb, there’s really nothing to replace them. Television news does very little in-depth daily reporting, most radio is hopeless, and blogs simply don’t have the resources. Magazines do some good work but come out only weekly or monthly. So while the raw numbers of media consolidation may be the most dramatic symptom of the problem, it’s the small number of national dailies at the core of today’s MSM that ought to be the biggest cause for concern.
Unsurprisingly, since I wrote those words, I agree completely. If I had to guess, I’d say that upwards of two-thirds of serious, daily reporting on national and international topics in the U.S. press comes from five sources: the LA Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and McClatchy. If the Denver Post dies, that’s bad for Denver, but what happens when the Big Five die? There’s really nothing to replace them.
Now, sure, there are other sources of information. I can read the Guardian and the Financial Times anytime I want. There’s plenty of good reporting in weekly and monthly magazines. Wire services and TV can provide basic coverage of press conferences and congressional hearings. It’s not as if we’ll be bereft of news.
But when it comes to daily reporting from Iraq; when it comes to uncovering things like the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program or the identity of Curveball; when it comes to serious investigations of federal corruption or corporate malfeasance — well, most of that is done by the Big Five. Not all of it. But most of it. And I’m not quite sure who’s up to the task of doing the kind of very costly reporting that this stuff requires if these big dailies either go away or shrivel into mere local outlets.
Maybe I’m worrying over nothing. After all, if there’s a demand for this kind of reporting, someone will provide it. And there is a demand for it. Right?
UPDATE: On the other hand, the New York Times reports today that Arizona State University is going to place a tuition surcharge on journalism majors starting next year. I guess the journalism profession can’t be suffering too badly if there are so many aspiring reporters that ASU needs to beat them off with a stick. I wonder what all these kids are planning to do with their j-school training?