Friday, April 17, 2009

NED’S NEWSPAPER DEATH WATCH

The other morning around 6:00 am I was out airing the dog and picked up the Dallas Morning News off the lawn. I waved at a respected and well-liked neighbor still in his pajamas and slippers performing the same chores and then all of a sudden appreciated that I was in a Norman Rockwell moment. Then in a further epiphany I looked around and sadly realized that this scene could sooner rather than later become a part of our past. It certainly appears that the major American institution we know as print newspapers is being reinvented probably to the delight of Internet Champions. It seems that many of the great newspapers of our country are slowly deep sixing or morphing to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

My paternal Grandfather, Col. G. Edward Buxton, Jr., was a war correspondent in WWI and later the Business Manager and Treasurer with the
Providence Journal now owned by Dallas-based A.H. Belo. My Father, Coburn Allen Buxton, worked in Advertising/Special Features for the Dallas Times Herald for thirty of the paper’s one hundred and three years after relatively short stints with the Troy Record of Troy, New York and the Dallas Morning News (DMN). In a tried and true capitalist maneuver designed to eliminate competition, the afternoon daily Herald is no more after a bargain basement buy-out by the Dallas Morning News in 1991 - seven short years after my Father's passing. Glad Dad didn't see that for the DMN shut the Herald down one day after their purchase. Some folks here in Texas felt this was a mercy killing though the irony is that the DMN is now under that same gun. Goes around, comes around…

The current Belo Corporation is the successor corporation (as of February, 2008) to the original A. H. Belo Company. Belo now operates just the TV and Cable side of the old business while the new/old company, A. H. Belo, still owns and operates the Dallas Morning News, the Providence (RI) Journal, The Denton Record-Chronicle of Denton, Texas and the Press-Enterprise of Riverside, CA (serving the “inland empire” of southern California). That spin off was a white flag and declaration of defeat as all the current A. H. Belo newspapers continue to be stressed. In 2007 A. H. Belo lost $347.01 million though “improved” in 2008 only losing $62.30 million. Grandfather Buxton is spinning in his grave.

It is more than a little ironic that these papers are reporting on the current challenging economic situation (maybe even adding to the feeding frenzy) while they remain squarely in the bulls eye themselves. They have all lost circulation, readership and unrecoverable revenues.
You can’t sell yesterday’s news today…

February 27, 2009 marked the end of another great newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News (RMN), just 55 days short of its 150th anniversary. The RMN was another casualty in a long line of newspapers recently deceased with more in the offering.

Let’s put these failures into perspective. In the last couple of years scores of newspapers have ceased to exist or have morphed into hybrid online-print or online-only models. They include: the Baltimore Examiner, Kentucky Post, Cincinnati Post, King County Journal, Union City Register-Tribune, Halifax Daily News, Albuquerque Tribune, South Idaho Press, San Juan Star, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Capital Times, Detroit News/Detroit Free Press, Christian Science Monitor, East Valley Tribune, Ann Arbor News, Flint Journal, Bay City Times, Saginaw News, Catskill Daily Mail/Hudson Register-Star and others. Scores of other Neighborhood and Community print newspapers have ceased to exist…

Other newspapers that appear to be in deep trouble include The Boston Globe, USA Today, New York Daily News, Los Angeles Times, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Chicago Sun-Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times, Miami Herald, Philadelphia Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Fort Worth Star Telegram, Cleveland Plain Dealer and surely not last the aforementioned A. H. Belo newspapers. The respected online “financial news and opinion operation”,
24/7 Wall Street, is predicting that it’s possible that eight of the fifty largest daily newspapers in the United States could cease publication in the next eighteen months. By the way if you are looking for insightful and objective financial reporting, don’t hesitate to visit these folks.

Well, it first appeared to me that we were all in some sort of a vigil, a death watch, as these papers are inexorably toppling down due to the “virulent Internet.” I initially decided to do this post for no other reason than documenting for my grandchildren that there used to be print newspapers. I thought that “Death Watch” might be an appropriate title, Googled it and wouldn’t you know it – there’s a popular and well-read blog entitled
Newspaper Death Watch authored by one Paul Gillin, a talented and insightful writer whose declared passion is journalism. He sounds like someone of Scots extraction though probably a cousin Irishman – gude enuf! Try him out especially if you want all the details about the “demise” of the American newspaper industry and how this is not necessarily the end of journalism. Interesting reading… I have copped his title for this post, with admiration and respectful apologies.

As an aside to all this journalistic palabber, appropriately and to the angst chagrin of my Father, I flunked Journalism 101 at Ole Miss. It was an 8:00 am class and I made few, damned few, of the classes. Ole Miss had a no cut policy of three classes and I was soon on the trash heap. I liken that to Faulkner flunking English at the hands of Ms. Cone. If I had pre-tested, I would have aced the class. And so back to the demise of some of our respected newspaper giants…

As Gillin has reported, “The high fixed cost of print publishing makes the major metro newspaper business model unsustainable in a world that increasingly wants information to be free.” Enter now the ever evolving Internet dragon that seems to be reinventing itself every six months or so while offering solutions and options even while precipating the necessity for this transition.

While some newspapers may, indeed, be on a Death Watch, there are some papers out there that appear to be negotiating around this financial morass. They are cutting staff, renegotiating union contracts, expanding and reporting on germane topics of interest, looking for new income streams that have put them mightily in the middle of the Internet. They are now managing web sites and blogging/posting, texting, twittering and keeping up with the new generation while recreating themselves. Some newspapers following this new model have even made money!

Unfortunately, a large part of our now geriatric population will probably be left out and unable to participate in this new information revolution. This is not the 1950’s TV and Radio era where all they had to do was flip a switch or turn a knob. Many seniors just don’t possess, or can’t afford to buy, computer hardware, nor have the capacity to develop the skills necessary to negotiate the Internet or even send an e-mail. All the great work by credible organizations like the AARP, local & state workforces and community colleges around the country can’t seem to make a dent in the retraining necessary to make our seniors communicative or marketable in today’s workplace. I have been there, done that and got the T shirt. It seems almost an impossible task.

My Mother like many in her generation was a victim of technology and refused to take that next step. In her legal work world she literally was the best and didn’t need these new fangled gizmos…. She was an IBM beta tester for their Selectric I & II typewriters and Mrs. Barbara Blackburn of Salem, Oregon aside (Dvorak), Mother routinely typed 170 words per minute (corrected) on the Selectric Qwerty keyboard though I honestly do not know how long she could maintain that pace. Incredible though this was timing was the major factor for her as computers were coming into vogue just as she was retiring. She was mercifully spared the indignity of the great transitions and makeovers that large law firms like Edwards & Angell in Providence, RI made to enter the technology age – and all for the better. By the way, Elisabeth Alden Littlefield Buxton would routinely complete the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, in ink, within 30 minutes.
I could not carry her bags…

So where are we going with all this? I hope that along with the survivial of some of the largest and most viable of newspapers, where we will get much of our national and international news (still slower than the Internet), you will see a rebirth of some local mostly human interest tabloid-style papers though most will be on the Internet, generally more responsive to their communities where grammatik and spell checker will have to be at the fore; where an article generated will be an article published; where much of the news will be mundane, trivial and old, very old. The local news will mostly be positive and Chamber of Commerce ads for the community though still the forum for dissent/disagreement and not so mainstream opinions. They will become conduits of operation for local and county governments. We will know who drank too much last weekend and what idiot whacked his wife. We will hopefully know who has the prettiest flowers and largest tomatoes and how about that 237 pound pumpkin? Maybe all that will be driven by vanity and the desire to see one’s name in print – electronic or otherwise. Richard Pierce and Benjamin Harris of
Publick Occurrences would be proud.

Reinvented newspapers and their paradigm shift to the Internet and electronic reporting (and whatever form their successors take) will be the real chroniclers of relevant history. We will adapt and the best among us will survive.

We are reinventing news reporting, every day and, yes, the reports of its demise are somewhat exaggerated and I look forward to another Norman Rockwell moment whilst retrieving the Texas Times Herald?

Aye,

Ned Buxton

2 comments:

Paul Gillin said...

Nice recollection and insight, Ned. Thanks for the shout-out. We're in the ugly destruction stage right now, but I'm very optimistic that journalism will be improved as a result of this experience. It's going to take some time to get there.

Paul Gillin
Newspaper Death Watch

Desire said...

Thanks for the shout-out. We're in the ugly destruction stage right now, but I'm very optimistic that journalism will be improved as a result of this experience. It's going to take some time to get there.

Thanks N Regards
coetsee

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