My family was in the newspaper business years before I was born so it is a given that I grew up and have spent my life in a world of printer’s ink. I know more about deadlines, press runs, display advertising and a writer’s credibility than most people and can’t name a single day I haven’t pored over that day’s editions in any city I have ever been.
So imagine my horror to learn that two of my best “friends,” the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Birmingham News, have just developed what is most certainly a death rattle. Sometime this fall both will only come out with editions three days a week. The Mobile Press-Register and the Huntsville Times will do the same thing, letting their online websites fill in the slack, and it just makes me want to weep.
I’ve been told that within five years there won’t be but 10 newspapers left in America. The Internet has sliced the print business to pieces and, with TV and radio giving the public little more than that day’s headlines, the in-depth journalism and the beautiful art of skilful writing will take a hard blow to the heart.
The reasons are many. People don’t take time to read anymore. We live in a microwave, quick-fix society where if you can’t be served in 30 seconds and eat in the next 15 it is too long a lunch. Texting and Fluttr and Tweeter add to the mix and our lifestyles don’t lend time to a leisurely read of anything that isn’t on a Kindle or a Nook.
Worse, the big marquee advertisers have bolted. With sites such as Craigslist free of charge, the classifieds have dried up and savvy movie theaters learned long ago the ads that listed the day’s starting times were virtually useless. Here’s why: a recent graph showed 47 percent of Americans get their news from TV, 26 from the Internet, 15 percent from the radio and – get this – only seven percent from print media.
But I still think there is a place for daily newspapers and so does billionaire Warren Buffett, the most successful investor of the 20th century. “The Oracle of Omaha” just bought 64 failing newspapers and told his editors last week they will be successful and thrive if they follow one simple command: "It's your job to make your paper indispensable to anyone who cares about what is going on in your city or town.”
Buffett also feels the New Orleans-Birmingham business model of printing a newspaper just three days a week is a foolish notion, as I do. “It seems to me that three days a week is simply unsustainable over the long term,” he said. “Either a publication is a (daily) newspaper or a periodical and I think three days a week crosses the line."
Are you kidding? It is a terribly foolish idea. Think of how futile just three days of reporting will be in covering a jury trial, a pennant race or even the weather forecast. The dream, of course, is to drive print readership to a newspaper website and then charge an online subscription fee. Some major newspapers have already tried to charge for online access, but thus far it has been unsuccessful – there are too many free sites where information can be obtained.
I’ve always felt the writers had a lot to do with newspapers and good columnists and story-tellers are a huge draw. The New York Times is the best example, but I can remember when Lewis Grizzard’s column appeared in over 200 newspapers on a given day and how some people would eagerly await the Doonesbury comic strip each day.
I can also remember our competitor laughing when we’d run pictures are darn near anything. And I recall the way we used to privately laugh back at them, knowing people loved buying copies with their picture in it. We used to cover every football game in town, along with tennis tournaments and swimming meets because we were so eager to get more names of Chattanoogans in the newspaper than ever before. Not only did we sell newspapers, we whipped our competitor to death.
But then things changed and hoity-toity “journalism majors” blanched at what was working, stealthily put “got-cha journalism” in its place and, as they ruthlessly capitalized on anybody who stumped their toe, they were unable to grasp why people no longer respected their product or advertised in it. There is a valid case to claim the liberal media is killing itself. It is an easy study.
Now come the first signs. I’ve read hundreds of newspapers out of New Orleans and Birmingham. In the days before faxes and the Internet, I subscribed to the Birmingham newspaper to keep up with the state’s sports scene and I used to talk to New Orleans writers at least once a week during football season, swapping notes.
Sure, we live in a better age but I’ll always have some kind of newspaper with me wherever I go because I can pick it up, put it down, read it during lunch and, if all else fails, slap at fruit flies. I just love my daily read and to hear the first death rattle grieves me.