The Turbulent World of News

This week marks the beginning of Economic Principals’s fifth year as a Web-based weekly. Its online incarnation appeared seven weeks after The Boston Globe unexpectedly closed down the newspaper column. I was able to continue covering economics thanks to Laughing Squid, Dreamweaver and a great deal of help from a pair of friends. Richard Harrington designed and maintains the EP site, and Mark Feeney is the weekly’s first reader.

EP thereby entered an ambiguous journalistic space in which it since has been joined by a great many others, some of them just starting out, others veterans in the same predicament as me — Gary Becker, for example.

Alone among the five Business Week columnists who lost their space when the magazine’s long-running “Economic Viewpoint” shut down (the others were Robert Barro, Laura Tyson, Robert Kuttner and Jeffery Garten), Becker moved to the Web, even persuading his friend and neighbor US Appellate Judge Richard Posner to join him with a posting of his own.

Business Week was preparing to change top editors when the University of Chicago professor and Nobel laureate stepped down in 2004.  He was 74 years old; he had written his column for 19 years. There was nothing unfriendly about the decision; indeed, editor-in-chief Stephen B. Shepard wrote a moving farewell.

But Becker posseses one of the most vital temperaments in all of economics. He kept on writing, he says, because he had acquired an audience, enjoyed the interaction with them, and still had something to say. He calls it a blog, but it’s really an interactive weekly, the outlines of the old column clearly visible every Sunday, at least until the next day when two friends post their responses to their mail.

Newspapers and magazines themselves were entering a period of change when EP quit to write online. The neologism “blog” (from Web log) was not yet widely known in early 2002.Then the technology improved dramatically (it was mostly software), so that today nearly three million citizens around the world possess vehicles of personal expression whose contents are easily and sometimes quickly and quite widely shared (around 2 million of them in English). Hence the blogosphere, an intricate, universal and easily-paused talk show which now has joined newspapers, magazines, wires services, newsletters, television and radio networks, both as a source of news and a means of disseminating it.

Things will never be the same again, it is said. True enough. They will, however, be nearly the same, only more so.  More competitive, that is.

The conventional wisdom is that newspapers are somehow finished. The Web has turned out to be a powerful advertising medium, thanks mainly to the way that search engines themselves attract traffic and direct it to high impact locations, large and small. The blogosphere thus is causing a further hemorrhage of the great stream of advertising revenue that once had flowed to newspapers in the glory days before radio and television. It was leaking badly enough already:  to give-away newspapers; to direct mail; to cell phones; to product placements in movies; to plasma screens in elevators.

Since the Internet bubble collapsed (and with it a windfall in advertising), newspaper editors have experimented with their mix, sometimes desperately, writing off old audience segments and courting new ones. (The positioning of Doonesbury within a newspaper is a great indicator of what group is being played to.) The results have not been encouraging. Readership, at least of the printed product, has continued in most cases to decline.

Newspapers’ predicament became more evident last week with sale of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain to the McClatchy Company. McClatchy, a well-managed one-time family company whose flagship newspaper is the Sacramento Bee, promptly announced that it would keep 20 of the papers it had bought, including the Miami Herald and the Charlotte Observer, but that it would put another dozen on the block.  Among them are two especially influential newspapers, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury News, which serves California’s Silicon Valley.  

This argument that newspapers are on the ropes misses two key points: the scarcity value of print, and the importance of management.

Old advantages die hard.  For many of the same reasons that historic cities remain in places for thousands of years — Paris, London, Rome, Jerusalem and New York are still where they started — newspapers are likely to remain at the top of the chain that creates and distributes provisional truth and sets the agenda. Because paper and ink are tangible and endure, newspapers are archived, in libraries, on microfilm and in servers; they cannot be changed with a few keystrokes. Because the eye assimilates information much more rapidly than does the ear, newspapers contain much more information than do broadcasts. They hire better people, give them more time to work, offer their readers more durable and satisfying explanations of eventss than do their electronic brethren.

Just as newspapers met the challenges of radio and television, they’ll accommodate to the Internet, too, and so remain our most powerful engines of consensus. They’ll be smaller, in the future, fewer in number, nimbler, quicker than they were before. Instead of the jumbo jet beloved of city room metaphor, they’ll be more like the 737s, 767s and 777s (and, soon enough, the 787s) jets that have replaced the lumbering old behemoths on the forward edge. They’ll be more expensive, too, and read by fewer people — a badge of honor (or an article of conspicuous consumption), a status good, a sign that the reader matters.  

They’ll also be more locally owned, at least in the nation’s most vital cities. The problem today is the way the industry has been organized historically, not with newspapers themselves. In their heyday, newspapers were relatively easy to operate. Chains could buy out tired owners of local papers and expect to carry on pretty much as before. Not any more.  The selectivity of the McClatchy Company in deciding what to keep and what to sell is a sign of things to come. It seems to me highly unlikely that cities such as Philadelphia and San Jose, or, for that matter, Boston and Los Angeles, are going to remain for long without vigorous independent and locally owned newspapers to cover them. Continuing to wilt under inept management is the alternative. It simply defies the logic of cities that the Chicago Tribune should own the Los Angeles Times, or The New York Times should own The Boston Globe. Newspapers in powerful cities should be locally owned by persons, typically families, involved in their hometown’s affairs. Otherwise, they wilt.

In this, as in much else, The Washington Post, the all-around healthiest paper in the country, has shown the way. More than 30 years ago the Post bought the Trenton Times, only to have the paper all but blow up in its face. They sold it in 1983, bought a prosperous educational services company instead (Kaplan, Inc.)and hardly anything of note since (except, last year, the e-zine Slate). Running a newspaper is harder than it looks. If you buy one and don’t run it well, people laugh at you — and worse. The Times, for example, is coming under pressure from its bond rating agencies. It seems only a matter of time until it sells the Globe.

Certainly there is plenty of demand in the marketplace for national papers — the Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Financial Times are indispensable institutions, quite literally a fourth branch of government. They will be around for centuries, if their owners don’t plunge off cliffs pursuing their multiplatform futures. Certainly newspapers of the future are going to be inter-modal — that is to say they will take full advantage of the Web to serve and enlist their readers.

(For a state-of-the art example of the possibilities, take a look Wicked Local, a network of hyper-local websites that rolled out last week, created by Massachusetts’ Enterprise NewsMedia to combine content from the company’s two newspapers south of Boston — the Quincy Patriot-Ledger and the Brockton Enterprise — with stories from its readers and a powerful local search engine, in this particular case, for the original American city of Plymouth.

In the meantime, however, the new technology of the Web permits new forms to evolve that promise to strengthen local institutions. A case in point is Christopher Lydon, a former newspaperman who for thirty years has filled the niche in Boston broadcast journalism that was established by the sainted Louis Lyons, longtime curator of the Nieman Foundation for journalists at Harvard University, whose nightly radio news broadcast was a fixture of Boston life in the age of John F. Kennedy. Shut down after a belly-bumping contest in 2002 with the station manager at Boston University’s WBUR, Lydon has returned to radio on rival station WGBH with a one-hour nightly program called Open Source.

Thanks to Public Radio International, a connection with the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, foundation backing, an ingenious Web-page and his loyal producer, Mary McGrath, Lydon now is carried by more than a dozen stations around the country.  Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr has become the dominant voice in Boston talk radio, Tom Ashbrook has taken over Lydon’s old job, former Globe columnist Mike Barnicle has a mellow morning talk show. But it is Lydon who is rapidly becoming the voice of Radio Boston around the world.

Even Economic Principals has become relatively well established, regularly reaching around 20,000 readers in a hundred countries around the world, closing in on its 200th email  subscription, on its way to the 500 or so subscriptions that it seeks to remain an active presence on the Web, happy to be part of a very exciting time in journalism. It still feels like going over the falls in a barrel.

But the workday still is much the same as it ever was.  It begins with flipping through four newspapers and scanning the Websites of another four.  Then a couple of blogs, an e-zine, a thoughtfully-edited agglomerator or two, the NPR and BBC radio newscasts, and finally the email, postal service and phone messages.  By 9 o’clock EP is ready to go to work — on stories that are making their way, slowly, surely, up the chain of explanation towards newsprint.