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Will Your Hometown Newspaper Still Be Around in 6 Months?

Newspapers have multiple problems, but the economic downturn is only a small part of it.
 
 
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You might miss Circuit City and Linens & Things, two casualties of the Bush Depression. Perhaps you worked there or bought your first TV set or popcorn popper there. But unless you had a personal investment in either of those places, you won't likely miss them 5 years from now.

But you will miss the Rocky Mountain News, printing its last edition last Friday. The Cincinnati Post is already gone. And if it happens, add the San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Daily News. That list might soon include the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Detroit News.

You might not live in those cities; maybe you've never even been to their Web sites. But you will miss them.

In 1978, when I was a child, the Chicago Daily News came to a close. It was sad watching a newspaper publish its last edition. But in 1978, we still had a healthy Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. Heck, the Sun-Times literally was a merger of the Chicago Sun and the Chicago Times.

Cities had pride based on whether they were a two-newspaper town. The number of two-newspaper cities is dwindling: Denver will only have one paper on Saturday; Philadelphia, Seattle, and Detroit are in serious danger of joining the group.

But San Francisco is different. While it technically has two papers, the Examiner is a joke. And Hearst is threatening to shut down the Chronicle, the only significant daily paper in one of the largest cities in the country. There is the Oakland Tribune and the San Jose News, but neither of them cover San Francisco with any significance.

Have we reached the point in the media world where two newspapers in a major city is a luxury? New York has 3½ dailies (Newsday doesn't cover the whole city); Chicago has two but both are very wounded; Los Angeles and San Francisco essentially only have one of significance. Boston amazingly has two relatively strong ones. Dallas-Ft. Worth and Minneapolis-St. Paul will likely keep two papers, only because of the two distinct cities in those markets.

Having competing newspapers in a city was vital in an era where TV news -- shallow by comparison even then -- fell short and radio news was a non-factor. Now, outside of NPR, radio news is virtually non-existent, and TV news is even shallower now. We do have the Internet, though. But is it an able substitute for having two newspapers, or possibly even one?

Newspapers have multiple problems -- the Bush Depression is a small part of it. A number of major newspapers were leveraged beyond belief. They have lost classified ads to Web sites such as Craigslist. But they also haven't adapted to the changing scope of how news is collected and disseminated.

There was a time where newspapers had to exist, given what advertisers wanted, regardless of the content. For years, newspapers promoted the value of the Sunday paper by saying, "the coupons alone pay for the cost of the paper."

Times have changed and newspapers have not tried to catch up to the 21st century realities. In the last eight years, newspapers -- even The New York Times and The Washington Post - missed so many Bush corruption stories and gave him the benefit of the doubt when he hadn't earned it. I'm sure newspapers felt like they got more sales in cheerleading for the Iraq War even before it started.

In the past, newspapers sold their souls for partisan gain and sales (the love of Reagan, all the countless Clinton impeachment stories), and could get away with it. Now with the Internet, we know we aren't getting the full story from newspapers.

I had the privilege of attending a forum on how to save Chicago journalism on Sunday. There was an esteemed panel, a nice mix of traditional journalism figures and the new breed -- those who run journalism Internet sites that serve Chicago. My initial views of the forum can be found here.

There was a generational divide in the room. The older people generally thought newspapers need to stop giving it away for free. The younger people felt newspapers weren't aggressive enough in making money from the Internet.

 
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