The ongoing tragedy of dying print media, the latest being community newspapers in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, Maryland
Newspapers have been an essential element of an informed public and a check on government and business over-reach. I have always been interested in newspapers, reading them since I was 8 years old.
And as someone who studied political science, I have always been keyed into the importance of an informed citizenry and the connection between newspaper reading and civic involvement.
Recent coverage of the impact of the control of media in countries like Russia, where Vladimir Putin is wildly popular despite being a pariah politically outside of Russia, or how the majority of the British media lined up in favor of an austerity agenda and the party in power, demonizing the Labour Party in favor of the Conservative Party and its agenda in the recent elections in the UK ("Seriously Bad Ideas," New York Times) shows the importance of an independent media as a check on authoritarianism and manipulation.
From the article:
... In particular, one important factor in the recent Conservative election triumph was the way Britain’s news media told voters, again and again, that excessive government spending under Labour caused the financial crisis.Of course, as AJ Liebling said, "the power of the press belongs to the man who owns the press."
It takes almost no homework to show that this claim is absurd on multiple levels. For one thing, the financial crisis was global; did Gordon Brown’s alleged overspending cause the housing busts in Florida and Spain? For another, all these claims of irresponsibility involve rewriting history, because on the eve of crisis nobody thought Britain was being profligate: debt was low by historical standards and the deficit fairly small. Finally, Britain’s supposedly disastrous fiscal position has never worried the markets, which have remained happy to buy British bonds despite historically low yields.
Nonetheless, that’s the story, generally reported not as opinion but as fact. And the really bad news is that Britain’s leaders seem to believe their own propaganda.
Even so, newspaper coverage of the NSA as a result of leaks published in the Guardian have put checks on surveillance by the US government. And the Seattle Times' recent coverage of how a mobile home manufacturing and finance company owned by Berkshire Hathaway ("Warren Buffett") shows how people can be taken advantage of by business interests, who have the power to shape laws and regulators to their interests ("The mobile-home trap: How a Warren Buffett empire preys on the poor").
And as newspapers have been closing in response to a variety of economic conditions, academic researchers find negative impact on communities, as indicated in this journal article, "Dead Newspapers and Citizens’ Civic Engagement," published in Political Communication:
Using data from the 2008 and 2009 Current Population Survey (CPS) conducted by the United States Census Bureau, this article assesses the year-over-year change in the civic engagement of citizens in America’s largest metropolitan areas. Of special interest are Denver and Seattle, where the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer closed during the intervening year. The data from the CPS indicate that civic engagement in Seattle and Denver dropped significantly from 2008 to 2009—a decline that is not consistently replicated over the same time period in other major American cities that did not lose a newspaper. The analysis suggests that this decline may plausibly be attributed to the ewspaper closures in Seattle and Denver. This short-term negative effect is concerning, and whether it lasts warrants future attention.
Media economics and an informed public. If you pick up a media economics textbook, somewhere on the first page is a line something like this:
The business of media is to provide audiences to advertisers.
Providing news was a way to sell, package, and deliver advertising. An unintended consequence is that it helped to produce a more informed and better society.
Producing "news" is an expensive proposition, requiring journalists, editors, page make up and layout people, as well as printing equipment and personnel, and a logistics and delivery system. All in all, it requires a lot of time, people and money.
At the same time, the printed product is made available at a low or even free price, as it is "subsidized" by advertising.
And people got in the habit of paying very little for information.
But as the advertising dries up, because of the consolidation within the various business sectors that had generated advertising as well as the migration of ad products to the Internet, especially classified advertising--employment and goods sold by individuals, real estate, etc., were big categories--there's not enough advertising revenue to "subsidize" the high cost of producing and delivering news embodied in printed products.
So newspapers have been slimming down staffs and the size of the printed product (my joke about the Post is that compared to what it was 20 years ago, it's like it has cancer as it has wasted away).
Many newspapers have shut down. In smaller markets, some newspapers have gone from 7 day publication to 3-4 days, or from daily to weekly or twice weekly.
Montgomery and Prince George's County to lose their major free weekly community newspapers. The Post reports that the company is shutting down its suburban newspapers operation, either closing newspapers like the once-weekly Gazette with editions in Montgomery and Prince George's County Maryland, selling them off to managers, like the Fairfax County Times, or selling to traditional media companies, such as the company's papers in Southern Maryland.
(This took awhile to happen. Heretofore, the metro paper was usually prevented from purchasing such newspapers out of concerns about monopoly, but as the Internet has wrecked print media, this previous prohibition was lifted.)
Such networks exist in St. Louis, Chicago (it's what kept the Sun-Times going economically as the main newspaper lost advertising and circulation, but they recently sold these papers to the Chicago Tribune), and Baltimore, among others.
But the Post's "suburban papers" were never integrated into the main platform of the big newspaper, they were bits and pieces that the Washington Post Company acquired over the years. As a result, the Gazette has been consigned to the ashbin--since the area they cover has about 2 million residents, you'd think they'd have been able to figure out how to make money at in.
This isn't a new process: newspapers have been consolidating for decades. Many cities have gone from having newspapers in the morning and evening to morning-only publication, and from multiple newspapers to one. For example, in Washington, DC, there were two major papers, the Evening Star and the Washington Post. The Star shut down in the late 1980s.
For years, the Star was the leading paper, but the Post trumped them first by buying and merging with the Times-Herald, and then later had the good fortune to be the newspaper published in the morning.
Reading on SEPTA regional rail.
This happened because it made the most sense for advertisers to run ads in only one paper, the paper that had the most readers.
Furthermore, newspapers published for reading in the late afternoon and evening lost out to tv news broadcasts and changes in commuting patterns--people stopped riding transit and started driving to and from work, which meant they didn't need something to read on the way home from work.
Unlike the Washington Post, Tribune doubles down on print media. Interestingly, by contrast, Tribune Publishing is doubling down on the value of print media products in the newspaper markets they are in. For example, in Baltimore, at some point they purchased the "Times" newspaper group, publisher of weeklies in area counties but with a Baltimore City edition, and eventually these papers were merged into the main Baltimore Sun website.
More recently, they purchased the Annapolis Capital, the daily newspaper in Maryland's state capital, plus the Baltimore City Paper, the city's free alternative weekly.
The Chicago paper, as mentioned, bought the very big suburban newspaper network that had been owned by the Sun-Times. And in Los Angeles, while the Times hasn't been totally successful in creating some local weeklies, such as in Pasadena, they still have some, and in a big surprise, recently purchased the San Diego Union-Tribune, to create a "Southern California Newspapers Network."
Then again, Tribune Publishing isn't owned by a leading e-commerce company.
Special zoned news sections in major newspapers. Many metropolitan newspapers still publish zoned weekly sections. The Post does it--the Local Living section on Thursdays is the same across all the editions, with the exception of community events and other data listings, and two pages of local news--although these days, the DC edition often has Virginia-oriented stories.
The Philadelphia Inquirer still publishes different Metropolitan news sections for New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but they dropped the special editorial page that once ran in each edition. This page carried additional editorials and letters to the editor on local issues, with different pages for the city, suburbs, and New Jersey editions.
But over the past 10 years, many newspapers like the New York Times, Detroit News, and Louisville Courier-Journal, stopped publishing these kinds of special sections, because the revenues from local small business advertisers not running in the regular paper weren't enough to cover the costs.
Ending these sections further diminishes the amount of coverage of local affairs, especially concerning land use, schools, and hyper local government.
Community newspapers. Community newspapers play a vital role in carrying news that is of a more local and less general interest. The metropolitan readers of the newspaper aren't likely to be interested in news about renovations at a particular school or a development project that doesn't have regional ramifications.
Most big cities have a big network of such newspapers, which in the past tended to be independent of the major media companies, and are published at the community-district-multi-neighborhood scale.
When I travel I always go out of my way to find and read these papers, to find out more about the place that I am in, things to do--reading some local paper in Astoria, Queens one weekend, we ended up taking one of the free rides on the new inaugural East River ferry service, etc. But that's becoming much harder to do as many of these papers go out of business.
In Northern Virginia, the Connection Newspapers cover most of the jurisdictions, and until June 19th, the Gazette covered Montgomery and Prince George's Counties in Maryland. (There is also the Sentinel covering those two counties, but its design is so horrid I never bother trying to read it.)
Alternative weeklies. Most cities still have alternative weeklies, which followed the example of the Village Voice, which was the first.
These papers too have lost much of their classified advertising, especially personals ads, which they relied upon for the bulk of their revenue. As a result the industry has been roiled by financial problems, bankruptcies, etc. And like their big paper cousins, they've gotten smaller and reduced staff and news holes.
Ethnic and special group papers. You'd never know it now, but the US has a rich tradition of community newspapers specifically serving ethnic communities. Many of these papers were published in foreign languages, serving new immigrant populations. As people assimilated and learned English, many of these papers lost the bulk of their readership and eventually shut down.
Today, it's common to have Spanish-language newspapers in most major cities--and depending on the size of the population, some of these cities, like New York City, Miami, and Los Angeles, have daily Spanish-language newspapers.
With integration, African-American newspapers have declined significantly in circulation, but most major communities still have them. With the fall off in reading print publications, it becomes harder to support and find these publications. DC has many such papers, with the Washington Informer and the Washington Afro-American being the most significant.
In Brooklyn, the Daily Challenge serves the Caribbean-derived African-American community. In the past, the Chicago Defender and Atlanta Daily World also published daily.
And there are a couple of national daily newspapers for Koreans. The regional edition of the Korea Times used to be produced and printed a couple blocks away from my house, on Kansas Avenue NW.
Weekly newspapers focused on the LGBT population like the Washington Blade are another element of this category of publication. And as the LGBT has become less constricted by social mores and geography, these newspapers too have lost circulation and advertising.
The Blade, owned by a gay newspaper publishing group, was for a time a casualty of these same trends. It was shut down in a corporate bankruptcy but fortunately was revived by the writers and editors independently.
Other specialty print media. Most major metropolitan areas have a number of monthly or seasonal publications focused on families/parenting, health, food, and recreation.
But these publications tend to not have a lot of coverage of land use and local government related matters. For the most part, they aren't prodding government or their readers on social, civic, and political issues.