Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The de-newspaperization of America

The loss of newspapers is part of the long-term destruction of urban America

The de-newspaperization of America

It used to be there were local newspapers everywhere. If you wanted to be a journalist, you could really make a good living working for your hometown paper. Now you have a few newspapers that make a profit because they are national brands, and journalists are having to scramble to piece together a living, in some cases as freelancers and without the same benefits that they had in a regular job for a paper, What’s true in journalism is true in manufacturing and is true in retail. What we have to recognize is that those old times aren’t coming back.

-- President Barack Obama, in an interview that was released only online yesterday, through Amazon's Kindle.

If nothing else, President Obama has always had an exquisite sense of timing. On the day this interview was released, reporters who work for the Plain Dealer of Cleveland -- an iconic name in American journalism, a newspaper that's published as a daily since 1845 and won a lot of awards over the years -- were ordered to stay home and sit by their telephones this morning. They knew, thanks to the rumor mill, that as many as 50 of them would be laid off before lunchtime. How sad and pathetic: Reporters who routinely work the streets of poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods getting fired by cowering managers who didn't have the cojones to tell face-to-face. Ain't that America, for you and me?

The de-newspaperization of America is finally catching up with the de-industrialization of America. Newsroom jobs, especially decent paying ones, are vanishing everywhere -- thanks to the shrinking number of print readers and the fact that digital advertising can't fully support digital journalism. But the job losses seem to be coming faster -- and the effect on the fabric of already struggling communities is far greater -- in the rusty, rotting-factory cities of older America.

It's happening in Detroit -- where the city is bankrupt and once-vibrant blocks are reverting to prairie, and where the papers are no longer delivered to the shrinking number of urban homesteads every day of the week. It's also happening in the river city of New Orleans, where the formerly beloved Times-Picayune is called "the Sometimes Picayune" because of cutbacks in print publication and delivery. The harshest cuts in jobs and print publication have come through Newhouse's Advance Publications, in cities like Birmingham (full disclosure, I worked there 1982-85...sigh), Harrisburg and now Cleveland.

Ironically, newspapers once survived and even flourished because they were able to chase their readers into the suburbs during the urban flight of the 1970s and '80s. while big-city tax collectors could not. For a brief moment in time, before the Internet and when newspapers had a monopoly-type grip on local advertising, newspapers were able to shine a light into the decline of American cities and call out -- often into the darkness -- for action when other institutions were failing the citizenry. When Detroit filed for bankruptcy earlier this month, a lot of blame (and rightfully so) was assigned to the city's string of corrupt leaders like jailed ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick -- but left unsaid was that many of these scandals were exposed by reporters from the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News, papers with smaller staffs and arguably less reach today.

A quick story about Cleveland: When the nation was jolted earlier this year by the news that three women who went missing and were presumed dead had instead been kidnapped by the monster Ariel Castro and were now remarkably freed, I was asked to produce a wrap-up piece for the Daily News in Philadelphia. I had never heard of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus or Michelle Knight before the rescue, and I assumed that their disappearance had been ignored in the media.

But on a local level, that wasn't true -- for two of the women, Berry and DeJesus, their disappearance in a grim, forgotten urban wasteland was kept alive for years by reporters and columnists from the Plain Dealer writing repeatedly about the cases. In the clips, you sensed that the journalists were more aggressive at times than the authorities. I was jarred by one fact -- that someone (presumably Castro) had used Berry's cell phone to call her mother and say she was safe a week later, a call that was initially dismissed as a hoax and not confirmed by the FBI until seven months later, when the trail had grown cold. I learned that by reading the clip in the Plain Dealer, which was all over the story. When Berry finally broke free in May, she told her rescuers, "Help me, I'm Amanda Berry."

In a city with an active and engaged news media, she knew those words would mean something. In the future, in Cleveland, I'm not so sure.

The Plain Dealer newspaper will next week kick off its plan to reduce its home delivery to only three days a week (including Sunday), which will reduce the flow of information in poorer neighborhoods where Internet access is lagging, like the streets where Berry, DeJesus and Knight were kidnapped. While 50 experienced journalists are getting their telephonic pink slips, the paper is advertising for nine new journalists who will certainly be lower paid and most likely younger, with less experience and knowledge of the tangled history of an iconic if faded American city. The layoffs are more than a third of an already shrunken newsroom, and more than Plain Dealer management promised -- suggesting that in addition to being cowards they are also liars.

It's a very very sad day -- not just for the journalists involved but for all of us. For more than 40 years, we've seen America's once-great cities dying from neglect, from bad policies and worse politicians, and from the greed that moved people's jobs out of town and then across the sea -- but things might have been even worse if some great journalists hadn't been there to occasionally yell, "Timber!" Now even that legacy of the Industrial Revolution is coming to an end. Now we can only wonder: If a smokestack falls in the city and no one is there to record it, does it make a sound?

About this blog
Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, blogs about his obsessions, including national and local politics and world affairs, the media, pop music, the Philadelphia Phillies, soccer and other sports, not necessarily in that order.

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