Death of (yet another) newspaper

December 10th, 2008 | by Alfred Siew

Another one bites the dust.

By the time you read this, news has probably spread – through the Net, no less – about the latest casualty resulting from the double whammy of lower advertising revenues and the current credit crunch.

The Tribune Co., which publishes the renowned Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, officially declared bankruptcy today (US time Dec 8), after reports over the weekend had hinted at its financial troubles.

Even with the current doom and gloom, the news of the biggest bankruptcy of a news outlet in years still ranks as one of the most alarming to come from troubled US newspapers of late.

Just last week, Gannett, the parent company of USA Today, said it was laying off 600 people across its 85 daily newspapers, in what was said to be the biggest single layoff for the sector ever.

And as I write this, the venerable New York Times Co. is borrowing US$225 million by leveraging on a portion of its HQ in Manhattan. Essentially, that’s to make a US$400 million loan payment by May, as creditors are increasingly worried about defaults, even from big companies that never had to justify their credit-worthiness in the past.

Has the proud truly fallen this time? Yes, if you think Big Media. But perhaps there’s a chance now for new, quality journalism to emerge online.

Ironically, on such a gloomy day, the Pulitzers are to be opened to online publications, notes CNet. CNet, of course, is an online-only news outlet, but it is right in pointing out that print is dead (well, dying, or comatose, however you want to describe it), and it’s time to embrace good journalism online.

What do we make of this? It’s all sobering news if you are a media practitioner. But it’s not the end for good journalism. If you believe that means telling a good story, being accurate and fair, serving the reader, and all those high ideals taught in journalism school, then surely, online news organisations offer a similar, if not better, outlet.

Will good journalism survive when reporters are not paid well? In the long term, after this massive shakeup, it might just do so. It’s just that Big Media, bloated, out of touch and arrogant, will be replaced by nimbler organisations that are out to serve the public better.

If journalism has become some sort of priesthood for a select few who were never elected into office and were never accountable to any of its readers, then surely all this uprooting of Big Media will benefit readers – and journalism – ultimately.

When news is a commodity online, and where Google is more popular than news outlets, only the best journalists will survive this consolidation.

On the bright side, there is always demand for value-added content, be it in the form of commentaries, exclusives or reporting on niche areas like technology and motoring.

It is just that, with everyone now connected, there won’t be any more assumptions that the reader is an idiot (an assumption drummed into rookies in some newsrooms) and that it is a godly duty for editors to order the world view for him.

It’s like selling CDs. No one wants to buy them any more. You just have to sell your single tracks on iTunes, or bump up concert ticket sales or perhaps even give your music free, as bands like Radiohead have done. Will newspaper men be brave enough for similarly drastic changes in their world?

Going by the growing RIP list on Newspaper Death Watch, and other such sites documenting the demise of print, change doesn’t seem to have come fast enough to save many news outlets.

For many of these folks, they just haven’t understood that one more day spent protecting print, as many news outlets are still doing, is one less day they have to go online.

The writing was always on the wall. I know many folks working in newspapers actually had a good laugh during the last bust, when they rolled in advertising money after what they thought were the end of the threat from the online world.

Sadly, unknown to them, they had just shrugged off an early warning, gone back to their old ways and never bothered innovating. And it may be too late to do so now.


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