ReelThoughts: February 24, 2009

"Ink Stained Fingers"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


Last year, The Chicago Tribune filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection. Today, Philadelphia's major papers, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News, joined the parade. The same fate has befallen many smaller papers, and more than one community daily has shut down the presses altogether. For those who have doubted that the death knell of newspapers is nigh, this is the wake-up call. It's time to start writing the obituary.

When I was young, I used to spend one week each summer with my paternal grandparents and one week with my maternal grandparents. My father's father was an avid New York Times reader. Every morning when he wasn't golfing, he would spend a couple of hours after breakfast reading the paper. (When he golfed, he would do this during the afternoon.) My grandmother wasn't that interested in the news, but she loved the crossword puzzles. My other grandfather subscribed to the smaller Asbury Park Press. He would read it every afternoon sometime between lunch and dinner and would inevitably fall asleep during or after reading it. My parents currently subscribe to two papers, including the aforementioned Philadelphia Inquirer. They may be members of the last generation to get their news from papers (although, to be fair, it's not their only source of information).

I have never subscribed to a newspaper. In fact, I don't really like them. They are big and unwieldy. It takes a lot of folding to get them into a manageable size then, as soon as you have read a few columns, it's time to unfold then re-fold. Plus, there's the issue of the ink. When I was a kid, I was sure there was a conspiracy between The New York Times and Ivory Soap. All the News That's Fit to Print and 99 44/100th's Percent Pure. Finally, there's the clutter factor. Nothing contributes more to an untidy house than a few weeks' newspapers. They seem to multiply. I have noticed this in hotel rooms where papers are delivered gratis then, ignored by housekeeping, pile up at an alarming rate. I hate this practice so much that I routinely pitch the free paper (unread) into the hall so it can take up space out there.

The specifics of what is causing the Philadelphia papers' distress relates to diminished revenue. Sales are down so advertisers are willing to pay less. Traffic on philly.com, the papers' website, is up, but web-based revenue is a slippery thing (as I have learned). While some minor revenue can be generated merely by passive page viewing, significant dollars accrue only when ads are clicked, and this doesn't happen often enough. The ReelViews click-through rate is about 0.5% (one click-through per 200 page views). A newspaper can't thrive on-line with that sort of feeble return.

The sad thing for newspapers is that it's not going to get better. The Philadelphia Inquirer has filed for Chapter 11 to re-organize and re-structure, but no amount of streamlining is going to deflect the inevitable: the newspaper as an entity is dying. There will be a time in the not-too-distant future when it will join the LP, cassette, and VHS tape as a relic of a simpler time. People will wax nostalgic about the "old days" when Dad would read the paper while sipping his morning coffee. And this will happen sooner rather than later.

When was the last time you saw someone under 50 reading a paper? How about 40? 30? 20? The younger the age group, the fewer newspaper readers there are. I know about a dozen people who subscribe to papers. All are 50 or older. I will get e-mails from readers who are 25 years old and are religious newspaper fanatics, but they are in the minority. No newspaper, even The New York Times, can survive based on their under-50 reader base. As the older readers die or lose their eyesight, they are not being replaced by younger ones. How long will it take? Perhaps 20 years - maybe a little more or less.

The newspaper is a dinosaur. Now, in an era when information flashes around the globe in microseconds, waiting until the next morning to get one's news is intolerable. There are dozens of respectable hard news outlets on-line. Want sports? Every team has its own web site. Weather? You can get personalized weather for your backyard. Opinion? That's the web's strong suit. Cartoons and crosswords? Just Google those words and see how many thousands of sites pop up. Movie reviews? Need I say more…

Back in the early 1990s, when I started doing this, I had vague dreams of maybe someday writing for a newspaper. That seemed to be the ultimate goal - the level at which legitimacy would be recognized. By the mid-'90s, I realized that newspapers were a dead end and, when an opportunity came to write for one around 2000, I turned it down. Tying my future to a dying industry didn't seem like a good career move. I'm not saying the Internet will be around forever. In fact, making a living writing on-line is an iffy proposition at best. But it's better than being a newspaperman first and an on-line critic second. Print critics without an on-line site to call their own would be advised to get busy if they want to have a life beyond that of their current employers.

I await with some interest learning what the next step will be for papers like The Philadelphia Inquirer. Those that survive long-term will do so on-line. And, because the revenue model is so different, there will have to be massive staff cuts. I visit philly.com daily for local news but don't find much use for it outside of that arena. Once its print limbs have been amputated, will it continue to function or will it go dark? And if it goes dark, will I miss it?

Means of information dissemination have changed over the centuries - from town criers to newspapers to radio to TV to the Internet. Sad as it may be for some to acknowledge, the time of the newspaper is gone. I will always treasure those images of my grandfathers sitting in their chairs, one reading his paper and the other snoozing with it folded open in his lap. But those are memories and, like all memories, they belong to the past.


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