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Newspapers See Writing On the Wall --Cagle

March 2009
Bits and Pieces

REPORTS OF the demise of newspapers may not have been exaggerated after all. In fact, I’d go as far to say they’re underestimated.

The newspaper industry has long cried poor, living off thin margins for years, yet plugging away in the name of all that is sacred. No one enters journalism believing they’ll make a comfortable living.

This is noble work, carrying on the legacy of Joe Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst and Adolph Simon Ochs—the Peace Corps of media. There is a hardscrabble dignity that accompanies the profession, a respect and notoriety that are factored into the remuneration.

That may not be the case for long. The American newspaper is sick, and a famous name is about to die on center stage, raising awareness to a problem that may no longer be fixable. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, owned by the Hearst Corp. and an ongoing concern since 1863 (when it was the Seattle Gazette), is now on the clock. If a buyer isn’t found this month, or if movement toward a deal hasn’t transpired, then the paper will stop the presses. It has a staff of 170.

Despite having a robust weekday circulation of 117,000 in a major U.S. city, the paper has endured operating losses since 2000, capped by a $14 million hit in 2008. An online version of the paper could continue, with a considerably smaller staff, Hearst Corp. told employees in its WARN letter.

The Seattle newspaper is not alone in these struggles and, as this modern depression intensifies, many more titles will break rather than bend. The Philadelphia Inquirer, which I can see outside my office window, is cut to the bone staff-wise. A friend who works in the Gannett chain was forced to take an unpaid week’s vacation in the first quarter of 2009, as were all employees of his paper. 

According to American Journalism Review (AJR), the population of newsrooms decreased by 15 percent in 2008. That’s three times the high water mark since AJR has estimated the workforce during the last 30 years.

The Internet is burning the newspaper, and the economy is providing the match. General interest titles like USA Today are doomed to be laid to rest, and quite soon. The New York Times, the yardstick of U.S. journalism, recently enjoyed a much-needed major cash infusion from a new investor. But where is the savior for the Post-Intelligencer?

Conventional thinking dictates that small, local newspapers will continue to flourish because they will address a niche that the Internet ignores: local news. For a while, I believed this to be true. Now, I see newspapers crumbling in succession, the process expedited by the economy. Within five to seven years, barring a major game turner, the U.S. paper will be pushed to the brink of extinction. It won’t go away completely, but its impact on American society will be severely marginalized.

The clock is ticking. Sad though it may be for those of us who are currently or previously members of the press, it’s just another reminder that change is a constant in our lives. 

TREASURED PAPERS: The butchering of Barack Obama’s presidential oath administered by Chief Justice John Roberts caused a bit of a flap and prompted Roberts to return the next day to get it right. It was a minor blip on an otherwise historic moment in the country’s history.

It is a safe bet that history will not remember the gaffe because of the dignity that is afforded such an event as the inauguration—particularly of the nation’s first black president. One can already imagine Obama’s profile on a U.S. coin some day, or on a postage stamp (if both items still exist in 50 years). Whether Obama actually accomplishes anything during his presidency will do little to tarnish what is already a watershed event in American history.

Thus, it’s understandable that Neenah Paper is all jazzed up about its distinction of having its Classic Crest eco-friendly paper selected for the invitation that was printed for Obama’s January 20 inauguration. More than one million inaugural invitations were engraved and printed on the Classic Crest.

Neenah has provided paper for the past three presidents’ inaugurations, according to the company. It traces the use of its paper for government documents back to the 1870s, when bonds and deeds were printed on Neenah sheets.

This isn’t marketing blather by a paper company. Historic documents hold their value well. On any given episode of PBS’ Antiques Roadshow, one can find an appraiser gushing about the historic significance (and monetary value) of a printed or handwritten document. 

Obviously, people didn’t think to store away anything and everything commemorating Abraham Lincoln in the hopes it would be worth money some day. But, in 100 years, demand will still likely outpace supply when it comes to Obamarabilia. PI

Erik Cagle


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