Monday, March 2, 2009

As the Columbus Dispatch goes, so goes...

THE ANNOUNCEMENT by the Columbus Dispatch, once the powerful lord of the manor in Central Ohio, that it is eliminating 45 more news room jobs is further evidence of the burrowing decline of America's newspapers. But as one with fond memories of my own fortunate days in the business, I find nothing to cheer about in the pools of blood forming under the print media's computers.  

Like most other eulogizers for departing staffers, the Dispatch's publisher and CEO,  John F. Wolfe, said the cutbacks were unavoidable but that the smaller staff would remain committed to serving its readers with "compelling" articles that were "relevant" and "accurate."  Though I don't doubt his sincerity, the fact remains that it will be a much smaller newspaper that cannot do what it could do with 45 more news room staffers.  Or the many more who had earlier accepted buyouts.  The math will support nothing more than a less inclusive mini-version of the old  Dispatch.   You imagine it being like the  the new box of cereal that has a  big empty space between the box top and the actual cereal.  

There was a time that the Wolfe family dominated the Buckeye capital with its presses running across the street from the Statehouse, and with  its bank ownership and reach for influence wherever it could enhance the value of its many lucrative enterprises.  Conservative to the bone, the paper showed little patience with  those who might think otherwise.  As the editor of a small liberal magazine just down the street from the "Big D" I felt its sting from time to time - and stung back.  But in recent years, for whatever reason, it became a less ideological and more journalistically respected newspaper. And now this.  I can't believe that it's happened to one of Ohio's biggest news institutions (owned TV, too) and that I don't feel very good about  seeing  a wounded giant in my old profession. .

But the thinning of the ranks, as well as advertising revenues, is claiming so many victims that it really isn't fresh news anymore, except maybe to people like me who went from typewriters through several generations of computers, to the one that I'm writing on at this moment.

The industry is, at best, on one leg. The Rocky Mountain News, which had been around for about 150 years, just folded.  The Detroit News is preparing to home-deliver just 3 days a week.  The Chicago Sun-Times  is trading at a nickel a share.  

The Age of the Internet and bloggers, of which I contribute what I can, is said to be the culprit in league with a rotten national economy (and some awful corporate decisions within the industry).  But as daily newspapers shrink, so will the attention given to the mischief  in their towns, states and nation - political, corporate, institutional etc. - that would require weeks and months of digging.  Unfortunately it will be a free pass for anyone who would no longer be  stalked by a nosy reporter or two.  I'm sure some of that may be  true today as reporters are pulled back from the suburbs or the Statehouses   and Capitol Hill. But how do we really know?

As reporters  become more engrossed in the permanence of their own jobs, and watch their stories published in once- competitive papers through mutual agreements, the vital  sense of competition  vanishes.  What will it matter if, say,  the Plain Dealer beats you on a lively story inasmuch you can either print their account word for word, with full attribution, or wait an extra day and publish your own?  To homogenize milk is one thing. To apply it to newspapers will have no more than temporary  benefits. 

A staggering industry is losing its edge.  Readers will get less for their money, and as they do, they will be less inclined to put up the money.  The familiar reader complaint in the past was that newspapers don't print enough good news.  Sorry, folks.  There isn't any in this business.    


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