Newspaper Deathwatch

July 4, 2008 • Media Economics • by

Schweizer Journalist, 6+7, 2008
Among the dozens, probably hundreds of US blogs focused on journalism and the media, one distinguishes itself with a rather macabre title: U.S. media critics are engaged in  end-of-life care for the daily newspaper. The funny thing is that the most remarkable contributions to the current debate on the future of the newspaper industry continue to appear in the old-fashioned print media and not, or certainly not exclusively, on the Internet.

Taking Playboy magazine as an example, sociologist Eric Klinenberg investigates the end of the daily newspaper in an article supplemented the usual fun-loving, bare-breasted beauties, like French Première Dame Carla Bruni (then still a model!) and Juliette Fretté, a feminist who says she  posed nude for the macho magazine “out of conviction.” In his study, the media researcher from New York University discovers that with the decline of the printed newspaper comes the magic of a new beginning. After Wall Street sliced and diced the share prices of US newspaper publishers, investors are sniffing at the chance of a lifetime, from media tycoon Rupert Murdoch to Sam Zell, who controls Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, to the proponents of the hedge funds scene, who recently bought their way into the Board of Directors of the New York Times. According to Klinenberg, the newspapers aren’t in as bad a situation as many would have us believe, especially media critics everywhere in the country. The main danger, he stresses, comes from the newspaper owners themselves who, in a self-cannibalizing frenzy, are nearly cost-cutting their newsrooms and editorial staffs to death. The rest of this wailing and grinding of teeth stems from the realization that the time has come for newspaper bosses to part with their regional monopolies and start embracing true competition. Which, in turn, means they have to be satisfied with perhaps a 10 percent return on sales rather than the handsome 25 percent they garnered in the good old days. Compared with many other businesses, however, theirs is still a truly profitable one, Klinenberg emphasizes.Less optimistic, but more sophisticated is the diagnosis and prognosis of New Yorker media journalist Eric Alterman. The daily newspapers, according to Alterman, are not really “dead,” but nevertheless likely to be out of print soon (i.e. they will have migrated to the Web completely). As a corollary, he sees the informative powers of society waning as well. In an Internet-based culture  lacking the “armies of reporters and photographers” that used to be under the command of traditional  newspapers, the investigative activities which once served to keep the higher-ups in check and protect people from “torture, oppression and injustice” are no longer priorities. Not a single website even comes close to the investigative efforts the best newspapers put forth in their search for newsworthy events. After the latest wave of layoffs, the New York Times still employs 1,200 people, “roughly 50 times as many as the Huffington Post,” which is presently the most successful US Internet-newspaper.

Eric Klinenberg: “The End of Newspapers”, in: Playboy (US edition), June 2008

Eric Alterman: “Out of Print”, in: The New Yorker, 31.03.2008

Translation: Oliver Heinemann

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