Hard Times, Hard Choices

Blogging the News

blogging bug image Thirty years ago, while tearing out walls of a bedroom during renovation of a country house, I discovered newspapers had been used for insulation. Tacked up in date order and perfectly preserved was the front-page coverage of the 1907 “trial of the century,” during which millionaire Henry K. Thaw faced charges of murdering architect Stanford White.

Fascinated with the contemporaneous, daily reports from the courtroom, I lost a whole weekend of work on that bedroom and then bought modern, pink, foamy stuff for the new insulation. I'm not sure it was any better.

Until recently, newspapers didn't stop being relevant when the news got old. They have been used to line birdcages, wrap fish and garbage and to wash windows. Shredded, they have filled many a cat litter box. They are excellent packing material, handy painting drop cloths and in a last-minute pinch, they can become amusing gift wrap.

Newspapers once had a long and useful household shelf life and now that era is ending.

All around the country, newspapers have been cutting staff, closing their doors or, if they can scrape the funds together, switching to electronic-only distribution. And these moves are accelerating.

  • In February, Denver's Rocky Mountain News shut down after 146 years of publication.

  • On Tuesday, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer became the biggest city daily to close its print edition. It will live on as a web-only paper now, with many fewer employees.

  • In April, the Christian Science Monitor will cease print publication except for one weekend edition and switch their daily schedule to the internet.

There will be more. This downshift in reporting has crucial implications for the future of a democracy, but today I want to talk about a related, if lesser, consequence: the impact on blogging.

In the blogosphere, opinion is cheap and reporting is almost non-existent. Bloggers (I include myself in this) hop around the web, gather a couple of quotations and use them to legitimize our points. Without the legwork reporters do, we would not have anything on which to base our opinions.

Some blogs, including some of the most popular and praised, hardly bother with the added value of opinion; they just write a headline and insert a link to the newspaper. Even The Huffington Post, which labels itself “The Internet Newspaper,” produces little original reporting; it is primarily punditry with links to newspaper stories and one-sentence lead-ins to television news videos.

Many of our blogging sources are not only secondary, they are tertiary because television news videos are often based on what TV producers and reporters read in the morning papers or on the wire services.

Most of television news's national and international bureaus were shut down 10 or 15 years ago so unless there are pictures as compelling as a natural disaster or plane crash, reporting is done from Washington and New York which accounts for the increase in panels of talking heads on news programs - a lot of blather without any reporting behind it.

Almost all blogging is derivative, and that is not bad, necessarily. That liberty badge in the left sidebar of this blog with Jay Rosen's statement that “Blogs are little First Amendment machines” isn't there for nothing. Blogs have given a public voice to anybody who wants one - millions of us - and don't think it can't have an impact. I was just one of thousands of bloggers who expressed their rage at the AIG bonuses on Sunday and Monday and the government noticed.

Especially when the zeitgeist comes together around a single story, as it has with AIG, political change can happen. Congress and the White House were flooded with angry phone calls and email about AIG and are now working on ways to claw back those unearned bonuses. Bloggers, in part, helped do that.

But we read it in the newspapers first.

Such public response cannot not happen without newspapers and professional reporters. It is primarily newspaper, and some TV, reporters who make the repeated phone calls, haunt the halls of Congress and city hall, do the tedious work of plowing through public records and who develop sources over time who are willing to spill the beans.

Now, as more and more of us rely on free editions of online newspapers for our information, more reporters will be laid off and more newspapers will die. Then what? In the decade-long existence of the blogosphere, the number of stories that have been broken by bloggers can be counted on one hand.

For some time, there has been an ongoing discussion among newspaper folks about how they can continue to exist. Even with only an online presence, reporters and editors need to eat and web advertising doesn't cover the bills – less so in our current, economic night.

The most obvious solution, charging a fee to read online newspapers, has already failed, but to preserve an independent press, it will be necessary in some form. A recent suggestion of 99 cents per story is untenable. The news-reading public, having now become accustomed to checking dozens of online sources, would raise holy hell. (At that price, it would cost me, at minimum, $50 a day.)

For now, I'm trusting that a solution will be found, but we are in untried territory. It will take time and some false starts before the problem is solved and undoubtedly more papers will fail before that happens.

Meanwhile, bloggers need to be aware of how much we count on and are beholden to the work of newspaper and, to a lesser extent, television reporters. I could not have written even this opinion-laden post without having read dozens of their stories over the past months and today.

Even though it's hard to wrap fish in flickering pixels, I don't care if newspapers stop appearing in print; electronic is fine. But our “little First Amendment machines” would lose most of their relevance without the hard work of journalists.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dani Ferguson remembers Maudie Mae.]


I hate to see the demise of newspapers, but I am contributing to the problem. We canceled our weekly subscription six months ago (we only get the Sunday paper) because it was all ads and no interesting content.

I couldn't agree more...but the newspapers have caused their own demise. Two years ago I was a long time subscriber to two newspapers and I quit at that time because they no longer seemed to care about me. Delivery was infrequent or late and my complaints were heard by an answering machine. A machine that never returned my call. I already had plenty of newspapers available via my pc, so I just added those two and canceled.

I still buy newspapers whenever I stop somewhere for coffee; I love the feel of the paper! But the papers paid no attention to the most important part of their business, the customer, and so they lost us all in the long run.

And...the newspaper business had or has its head in the sand regarding electronic media. They should have embraced it at the beginning and by now they would have controlled it.

I have followed this issue closely myself. It has gotten a lot of air time lately with major newspaper closings as you have pointed out in your post. The Jim Lehrer News Hour has devoted several segments to this issue. And other major cities in the US are expected to follow suit.

Our State newspaper seems to be solvent at this time but offers both home and on-line delivery. I changed to an on-line subscription about a year ago. The cost is almost identical for either home delivery or on-line access. The paper does not allow “free” on-line access. The other thing that I really like about the on-line subscription is that I can download individual pages or even the whole newspaper in “pdf” format thus allowing me to archive items of interest.

Now for me personally this is a great option but I do see a drawback were the “paper” edition of newspapers to be discontinued. That being that many folks, especially those in our age group, do not use computers and thus would lose access to daily news via the newspaper. To be comparable to the “paper” editions with regard to coverage would require almost every household to have a computer and an Internet provider.

I cannot imagine my husband not having his head in a newspaper first thing in the morning. At one time, we had three papers delivered daily. We’re presently down to just one delivery. I can see that before very long, we’ll also be canceling the one due to poor customer service as previously experienced with the other two papers. We will, however, continue to buy newspapers from the store for as long as they are in existence.

I LOVE reading newspapers from everywhere I travel. Bringing me a newspaper is the biggest gift. At home, I save every single paper & use them for mulch in my gardens. I also put a big carpet of paper under my cat litter box so she won't freeze her little tootsies when she goes to do her business.

I put another carpet of fresh paper under her water and food bowl. I need my newspapers! I like the feel of a paper & the whole ritual of reading on at McDonalds (free) or just checking the free underground ones in cities like NYC. I guess when we all have a tiny laptop like the Asus eee, we won't need newspapers any more. That makes me sad.

All the more reason to support the independents that are struggling - see http://www.thenation.com/

For decades, American newspapers relied on advertising to cover their costs, not reader subscriptions, just as network television relied on commercials to cover their costs.

Once newspapers began being "corporatized", the quarterly profits became more important than news content, reporters and editors were made redundant and the resulting drop in journalistic quality was felt almost immediately. Frankly, a lot of newspapers became more useful as bird cage liners than as news vehicles.

Until newspapers deal with news, whether local, national, or international in a journalistic way, even the internet won't save them.

Here in San Francisco, the Hearst Corporation is threatening to pull the plug on a our local "fish wrap" as columnist Herb Caen used to call the Chronicle. Just last night I blogged a meeting about this.

The paper gets thinner and thinner -- and it doesn't get better, either. Yet I will hate to lose it. It has quite a good web site for the time being at sfgate.

There has to be a profit in some form of delivering to those of us who want it some version of well-reported news. That probably is a niche audience though. The papers depended on all the other things: classifieds, movie listings, weather, etc. to bring eyeballs to advertisers.

At the meeting the other night, a professor of broadcast media pointed out that TV used to be free, but now most who can pay for cable -- so a medium can regress to paid content after having been offered at no cost. Scary thought.

Because of sporadic and undependable delivery in the country, we stopped our daily newspaper. When I do buy one in town, it seems like most of the news is old as no way can they compete with the internet or cable news which can instantly deliver.

The solution in my mind is paying for online newspapers. We paid when the NY Times tried it; but it didn't work for them as you said. It's still the right way but not per story, say a package of several papers and so much for three months or a year.

It's unreasonable to think newspapers can keep a staff without income but online can do reporting if it pays salaries for those who do the legwork. Sadly the newspaper is probably not going to be with us forever but what we want to be sure stays is a media that does research and real journalism (not a lot of that out there even with newspapers). Cable news does have some journalism in its stories. Public broadcasting has research and journalism, but it has been partially subsidized by taxes (which the right would dearly love to stop) and much by contributions.

Your analysis is right on target. As a onetime reporter who covered beats ranging from the Pentagon and labor relations to corporate mergers and commodity markets, I am particularly saddened by the loss of job opportunities for bright, intellectually curious young people graduating from journalism schools. It seems that the only ones with a chance to find employment are pretty blonds who can read news reports on a TV teleprompter.

I agree with Diane that newspapers, like the auto industry, are the cause of their own demise. When the corporate newspapers stopped paying for good investigative reporting they made themselves unable to compete with the emerging internet.

There was a time when you could get the facts of a story without bias and trust it to be true. Now most papers just regurgitate the news from the national outlets.

I decided long ago to cancel my paper. Why should I get black hands reading news that I could peruse better on the the Internet?

Having lived in the DC area for over 25 years now, I'm very proud that my local paper is The Washington Post. That said, I haven't subscribed since it went online.

I know that in various online chats that the Post has had, I and many, many others have chimed in that we would gladly pay the subscription price for the online edition. They keep saying it's not possible anymore. Many have said they would even donate for the online edition. Again, no. So it obviously goes way beyond the falling subscriptions, as you said, with the decline of advertising and classified ads.

Our local newspaper, owned by McClatchy, has been reduced to 1/3 the size it was a year ago. It has always had "yesterday's news tomorrow," as a friend says, but the community depends on it for local news. Now it is making noises like it will shut down entirely -- it has already reduced its staff by half.

The paper's demise will leave this city of 250,000 without a newspaper at all. The local TV and radio stations are a joke, and with the prevalence of "sound bites" I foresee our having little in-depth idea of what's really going on in our city at all.

The newspaper from the state's largest city 90 miles away has stopped delivery outside its metropolitan area, so we can't get that. It's becoming easier to get the daily New York Times here in this little Georgia city than it is to get the state's newspapers!

Many newspapers, including our local one, have tried having an internet presence, but they can't even compete with blogs and other alternative news sources. The reason? They just don't "get it." They try to transfer the methods and materials of the print edition directly over to the online edition; people just don't read the web like they do print. Also, many of the online newspapers, ours included, do a terrible job with their websites, making it even harder to get the news.

We still take the daily newspaper, but it's becoming harder and harder to justify each time we get the bill. We're continuing to subscribe mainly because we have friends employed by the newspaper, and we're trying to support them as long as we can.

I can't imagine our democracy functioning well without newspapers. They have historically provided the kind of reportage and in-depth coverage that have forced whatever transparency and honesty our government has. Without them we lose not only good local news, but a check and balance on our national government's doings.

We are down to just having the Sunday paper delivered. In years past we looked forward to the morning paper and at one time we even had an afternoon edition here in Phoenix. That is all gone.

Newspapers missed seeing the impact of the internet on their business and have been paying for it ever since.

I wish there were a way to get good ORIGINAL reporting on the internet, but I agree with you Ronni that it mostly second or third hand news.

Without a robust news industry and especially newspapers you get the kind of government we have experienced for the last few cycles.

Let's hope that a new source of unbiased, objective reporting can be found before the last paper bites the dust.

I still enjoy reading my newspapers. I will be upset when I cannot fold it up and carry it to drs. appointments, etc. and peruse at my own pace. I get distracted on the internet, it goes too slow, and other problems. However, i will miss being able to use it for pet potty paper. I cannot leave my laptop in the half bath for Shelby to do her business.

I like the feel of a newspaper in my hands. Fortunately The State (here in Columbia) is a good newspaper !! :-)

I love newspapers and always have. Starting with the Athens Banner Herald and the Atlanta Journal which I read as a child growing up.

Now I read the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the New York Times. We get daily delivery of both papers.

I could easily do without the AJC (except for the obits :)) but I would sorely miss the NYT if it should ever fold.

I like the feel of the newspaper in my hands as I have my second cup of coffee. I like the in depth coverage of the events of the day and the opinion pieces. And the crossword puzzle.

Print is more personal than the internet.

Say it ain't so, Joe.

Yes, I certainly hope some sort of true reliable accurate news stories and investigative news organizations form before all our newspapers disintegrate into dust.

Whatever will all the writers on the Internet, including myself, ever write about -- old newspaper, magazine aYrticles and books? Will we simply regurgitate what each other writes putting our own perspective and opinion on the topic? But then, we're already doing some of that when I think of what you write here and how so many of us spin off variations of it unintentionally or otherwise, much as I'm doing in this comment.

Our L.A. Times is constantly being eviscerated. I have been angry watching this happen, but sadly newspapers as we've known them are dying. TV News departments became a shadow of their former selves when they were turned into profit machines run by people other than news broadcasters. Unfortunately, the reality was that TV was soon under the gun of destruction and this was simply more pain some of which was self-administered.

I do not get up and sit down at my computer first thing in the morning, even now that I have a laptop, nor does the idea appeal to me. I turn on the radio to local commercial all news radio stations I can listen to as I go about my business throughout the house. Where do they get their news? From newspapers and what few organized press groups that still exist.

I guess all these really good newspeople from broadcast and print will have to form their own groups -- and if they can't get subsidized, they'll have to live on peanuts while they try to build credible organizations for which others will pay. Will we then be willing to subscribe to some Internet news program just as we would have our newspaper? I guess if I didn't have any other choice to get the news, newspapers and print were gone, I'd have to.

I still subscribe to my local bi-weekly newspaper and a local daily paper that covers a larger geographical area, but I see very little in it I don't learn elsewhere. Frankly, I only keep receiving it, hoping they'll find a niche that will allow them to transition and/or survive. The third daily paper I receive is the Los Angeles Times whose news and content have deteriorated as their staff has significantly decreased in number.

I relax in a nice easy chair with my breakfast I've been preparing while listening to the radio, and skim through the papers I've retrieved from my driveway. Yeah, for a long time now, a lot of it is far from breaking news. It's mostly stuff I've heard a bit about already from today's radio, or last night's radio I had on as I was preparing for bed, but I can read more detail on what might pique my interest.

Year's ago when household pennies for extras were few, I entertained the possibility receiving these newspapers was a luxury. Then, I figured up how many coupons for items I used were in the Sunday paper, sometimes other days, too, and I realized that those I used added up to more than the cost of the weekly paper subscription, so they paid for themselves. Then I was buying for a family household. Now there is only me so I doubt that coupon-savings works out the same, but maybe it does some times.

When I visit my children in other states, they do not subscribe to newspapers. Frankly, when I'm able to get out and get papers there, I find I sometimes end up knowing more about some of what's going on there than they do. I find it a superior way to get to know their communities and businesses. No, I don't want to go sit at a computer, or pile one on my lap to read. Carrying my laptop into the bathroom when I'm in the middle of reading an article doesn't appeal to me either. I do like to spend some time reading the paper there sometimes.

I guess I'll need to come up with some new reading material.

Here our local, the San Diego Union-Tribune, was sold yesterday to a Conglomerate with no newspaper background.

Cuts first.......small then larger. The Publisher died, her son took over, the paper sold. Yes, it is a conservative paper in a newly Democratic town. Yes, TV then the internet heralded the demise of paper news. It still arrives on my doorstep, but not at an hour I can read it easily.

I'm in a "we will see what happens" place with our very thin paper that still has more local news than the TV does.

I agree with the others here who mourn the lost of quality newspapers. I grew-up with the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. The News was the morning paper and the Post the afternoon. In our house we subscribed to both and my brother was a paperboy for both newspapers- sometimes at the same time.

In the 1980's the Post became a morning paper, in 2001 the Post and the News became a joint operation. Each published a weekday paper while the News published the Saturday paper and the Post the Sunday. When the papers combined everyone was sure one would go under. It took another eight years but it did happen.

Funny thing, the quality of the Post seems to have improved since the demise of the News. There have been a number of in-depth articles about local issues. The other day there was a story about farms on the eastern plains going under because their owners can not afford to buy the water they need to stay in business. Maybe most cities can only support one newspaper these days. I hope so because I would hate to see the Post fold.

As you pointed out we need good reporters who are willing to dig into the important stories and not just regurgitate something they read somewhere else. Newspapers have got to adapt to this relatively new online world or they will die out. Let's hope they do adapt before it is too late because I believe unbiased news reporting is the lifeblood of any healthy democracy.

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