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Why the Press Is on Suicide Watch

Newspapers are a self-destructive retreat from innovation -- what's going to stop them from total collapse?

IF you wanted to pick the moment when the American news business went on suicide watch, it was almost exactly three years ago. That’s when Stephen Colbert, appearing at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, delivered a monologue accusing his hosts of being stenographers who had, in essence, let the Bush White House get away with murder (or at least the war in Iraq). To prove the point, the partying journalists in the Washington Hilton ballroom could be seen ( courtesy of C-Span) fawning over government potentates -- in some cases the very “sources” who had fed all those fictional sightings of Saddam Hussein’s W.M.D.

Colbert’s routine did not kill. The Washington Post reported that it “fell flat.” The Times initially did not even mention it. But to the Beltway’s bafflement, Colbert’s riff went viral overnight, ultimately to have a marathon run as the most popular video on iTunes. The cultural disconnect between the journalism establishment and the public it aspires to serve could not have been more vividly dramatized.

The bad news about the news business has accelerated ever since. Newspaper circulations and revenues are in free fall. Legendary brands from The Los Angeles Times to The Philadelphia Inquirer are teetering. The New York Times Company threatened to close The Boston Globe if its employees didn’t make substantial sacrifices in salaries and benefits. Other papers have died. The reporting ranks on network and local news alike are shriveling. You know it’s bad when the Senate is moved, as it was last week, to weigh in with hearings on “The Future of Journalism.”

Not all is bleak on the Titanic, however. The White House correspondents’ bacchanal was on tap for this weekend. And this time no one could accuse the revelers of failing to get down with the Colbert-iTunes-Facebook young folk: hip big-time journalists now stroke their fans with 140-character messages on Twitter. Or did. No sooner did boldface Washington media personalities ostentatiously embrace Twitter than Nielsen reported that more than 60 percent of Twitter users abandon it after a single month.

The causes of journalism’s downfall — some self-inflicted, some beyond anyone’s control (a worldwide economic meltdown) — are well known. To time-travel back to the dawn of the technological strand of the disaster, search YouTube for “ 1981 primitive Internet report on KRON.” What you’ll find is a 28-year-old local television news piece from San Francisco about a “far-fetched,” pre-Web experiment by the city’s two papers, The Chronicle and The Examiner, to distribute their wares to readers with home computers via primitive phone modems. Though there were at most 3,000 people in the Bay Area with PCs then, some 500 mailed in coupons for the service to The Chronicle alone. But, as the anchorwoman assures us at the end, with a two-hour download time (at $5 an hour), “the new telepaper won’t be much competition for the 20-cent street edition.”

The rest is irreversible history. This far-fetched newspaper experiment soon faded, even in San Francisco, the gateway to Silicon Valley. Today The Examiner, once the flagship of William Randolph Hearst’s grand journalistic empire, exists in name only, as a flimsy giveaway. The Chronicle is under threat of closure.

But this self-destructive retreat from innovation is hardly novel in the history of American communications. In the last transformative tech revolution before the Internet — television’s emergence in the late 1940s — the pattern was remarkably similar. The entertainment industry referred to TV as “the monster,” and by 1951, the editor of the industry’s trade paper, Variety, was fearful that the monster would “eventually swallow up practically all of show business.” Movies had killed vaudeville a generation earlier. This new household appliance threatened to strangle radio, movies, the Broadway theater, nightclubs and the circus. And newspapers too: “NBC’s New ‘Today’ Attacked by Papers as Competition” screamed a front-page Variety headline in 1952.

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