Last week I wrote about Lodi High School's newspaper, the Flame, ceasing publication because of tight budgets, dwindling student enrollment in journalism classes and general disinterest within its target audience. [Lodi High Newspaper Scrapped Due to Budget, Lack of Interest, by Jennifer Bonnet, Lodi News-Sentinel, August 13, 2009]
I drew the parallel between the Flame and overall conditions in print journalism—declining revenues and readership looking elsewhere for its news.
The questions that remain are what happened and what are the lessons we should learn from newspapers' collapse?
To find out the answers, three months ago the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet held a hearing named "The Future of Journalism".
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) called the hearing because he sees newspapers including his local Boston Globe as an "endangered species," and one that if it dies will deny Americans access to traditional investigative and public interest reporting.
Senators assisted by a panel of experts mulled antitrust exemptions and non-profit status for newspapers but without reaching any conclusions.
During their deliberations, newspaper executives kicked around some interesting and challenging ideas.
Dallas Morning News publisher James M. Moroney underlined the financial urgency of solving the newspaper crisis. Moroney told the Senators that the Morning News gets as little as 40 cents for 1,000 views of an ad on the paper's website.
Moroney added that if 2009 revenue continues its current decline, some papers will have lost as much as half their ad revenue in just three years.
It would help considerably, Moroney argued, if the government via an antitrust exemption would allow print companies to enter into a fair revenue-sharing agreement with Google and Amazon, maker of the automated Kindle reader. Moroney groused that Amazon wanted 70 percent of the revenue generated by running newspaper content.
But Marissa Mayer, a Google vice president, dared newspaper publishers to follow through on their complaints by blocking listings of their stories and pictures from Internet search engines.
Most papers, as Mayer knows, are loath to give up the considerable traffic Google directs to them.
Mayer also told the Senators that newspapers should be paying more attention to their finished product. She recommended "reader engagement" by better directing readers from one story to other, similar features and advertising.
Simon said that the newspaper industry caused their own demise—"butchered itself" is how he put it—by cutting staff to generate higher profits.
When locally based, family-owned newspapers like the Sun were consolidated into publicly-held newspaper chains, the historic dynamic and trust between journalism and the communities it represents was betrayed.
The Sun's evolution during the last two decades proves Simon's point.
In 1986, Times-Mirror bought the Sun. Then, in 2000 the Tribune Company acquired Times-Mirror. As part of a continuing pattern of lay offs, in April the Tribune (now in bankruptcy) eliminated 61 of 205 newsroom employees.
Simon predicted that further newsroom cuts mean that: "the next 10 or 15 years in this country are going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption."
The Lodi News-Sentinel, one of those locally based, family owned newspapers Simon referred to, bucked the trend and remained independent, as it has been since 1881.
In short, Simon argued that journalism killed itself at Wall Street's urging when it pursued the same unfettered, free-market path that has proved so disastrous for so many American industries.
Simon concluded that American newspaper's original sin was seeking Wall Street advice.
Simon asked the session's most critical question:
"Airlines, manufacturing, banking, real estate—is there a sector of the American economy where laissez-faire theories have not burned the poor, the middle class and the consumer, while bloating the rich and mortgaging the very future of the industry, if not the country itself? I'm pressed to think of one."
Neither the Internet nor the economic downturn alone drove newspapers into their tail spin.
Rather the blame lies in creating a flawed newspaper ownership model.
Then, newspapers compounded their errors by standing by while big media corporations, driven by unchecked greed and bottom line calculations pushed civic and democratic values aside.
Joe Guzzardi [email him] is a California native who recently fled the state because of over-immigration, over-population and a rapidly deteriorating quality of life. He has moved to Pittsburgh, PA where the air is clean and the growth rate stable. A long-time instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, Guzzardi has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.