Saturday, April 04, 2009

Newspaper Angst

I get up this morning to find this story headlining the Globe - Times Co. may shut Globe;
seeks union concessions
. Ouch. There's nothing new, I guess, about stories of newspapers in trouble - but this is bringing it home in a particularly unpleasant way.

I know I am probably part of the problem: I've been reading the daily paper online for almost a decade (summer 2000, I think, is when I dropped it for good) - though I keep buying the Sunday edition most of the time... I don't know how that factors into this, though - it's ad revenues that pay for papers, and ads are there online as much as in paper. Just that I'm not sure anyone to this day has figured out how to measure the value of online ads. Circulation, I suppose, measures the value of print ads pretty well - but online? Subscriptions don't quite do it - they're too easy to circumvent...

But this is not just a question of format. I don't buy the paper, but I read it: I check the Boston Globe, every day. I read it the way I always have, more or less - check the big news stories, read the sports pages, look through the A&E section, and anything else that catches my eye. I do it online rather than the paper, but - I don't want to do without that. I want a local paper - I want the Globe, not the Herald, too - online, offline, whatever... This is terribly distressing. I am not sure how much the real problem is that the Boston Globe is owned by the New York Times - if the Globe were independent, would it have a different set of incentives to stay open? The Herald is independent - I don't know if that changes the dynamic in important ways - I suspect it does. It's all a mess.

And so - to take a bit of comfort - here's Roger Ebert celebrating the good old days in the newspaper world. As well he should! Though at some point, that is somewhat misleading - the romance of the old newspapers is fine, but some of it is dependent on the technology - the technology has changed: information increasingly circulates electronically now. That creates different ways of working, reading, all the rest. And that - while urging nostalgic regret - is not the same problem as the disappearance of independent local newspapers. Related, no doubt - indeed, probably driven by the close association of local reporting and writing with the facts of printing presses and papers and circulation figures and ad revenues and all the rest - but the two are still separable. The fact is - there will be good writing available somewhere. If not in papers, then online. But the other side of things - the local paper, the local reporters - the people who know everything in their corner of the world (that Ebert describes in that essay) - when that goes, it is harder to say that it will come back. Someone has to pay the people who know all the mobsters' nicknames - it's not obvious where that money will come from when newspapers are all online, all either completely centralized (all the big chain papers), or completely atomized into blogs and vanity sites....

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