Newspapers increase drain-circling velocity

The latest newspaper figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations are just jaw-dropping. Editor & Publisher reports that daily circulation for the six months ending March 31 was off 7 percent at 395 dailies, compared to the same period the year before.

But at some of the country’s most prominent papers, it’s much worse than that. The New York Post lost 20 percent — one in five people who was reading the Post a year ago is no longer reading it. Same goes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Miami Herald, Newark Star-Ledger and San Francisco Chronicle lost about 16 percent, or about one in six readers. The Houston Chronicle and New York Daily News about 14 percent. And on and on. Sunday numbers are similar.

The only news event in my lifetime that I can compare this to is the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late ’80s. I remember reading the stories coming out of Moscow in 1988 and ’89 as the USSR dismantled itself and thinking, “I’m watching the end of something I never dreamed would end in my lifetime — and I’m not that old!”

I’m saying that again, though the not-that-old part is quite a bit less true.

It’s not quite the same with newspapers. They’re not going to disappear completely. But right before our eyes, they’re collapsing as a central institution in our culture. It’s as if streetlights or shoes or sliced bread went away. You just never thought you’d see it, did you? Life would go on without those things, but it would be different. Something would replace them. Maybe better, maybe not.

Because I’m excited about the possibilities of what might replace newspaper’s role, I know it seems like I’m happy to see them go, that I’m dancing on their grave. I’m not. I’m sorry to see them fail like this. I’m sad and worried about the many people, some of whom I know, who have lost their jobs and the many more who have an ax over their heads.

And I’m sorry to see the decline. For all the brave new worldness of my first online job in 1996, I missed working at the newspaper. I missed being in a big-city newsroom with seasoned newspaper people, the most senior of whom had hired on after returning from World War II. I missed being a part of something with direct ties, a straight historical line, to the 19th century. I missed helping to produce a product that I could see people using as I rode the bus home from my shift.

Still do.

That said, the utter failure rampant in newspapers couldn’t have happened to a more deserving industry. It didn’t have to happen, and it isn’t just happening because the Internet came along and changed everything. More on that next time.

Pulitzers prove papers’ viability

The New York Times winning five Pulitzer Prizes is proof that newspapers are still relevant despite the industry’s losses and the growing influence of the Web, the paper’s executive editor says.

“It comes in a year when a lot of newspapers are on the ropes, it is a reminder of what newspapers can do that others can’t,” Editor and Publisher quoted Bill Keller saying after the prizes were announced this week. “I am a fan of citizen journalism,” he continued, “but there is some stuff that only an experienced professional news staff can do.”

In related news, the chief executive officer of the National Buggy Whip Company said his firm’s strong showing in the 2009 Buggy Whip Awards proves the continued viability and relevance of buggy whips.

“I don’t think they’d be handing out awards like that if our product wasn’t still extremely important,” said Chester Heidecker of NBWC, whose Giddyap 5000 won Buggy Whip of the Year. The company also took home the prize for best innovation (NFL logos on the handle) and Most Ergonomic Whip.

“I’m a fan of cars and airplanes and helicopters and motorcycles and hovercraft,” Heidecker said, “but there is some stuff that only a horse can do. Like pull a wagon. If you only have a wagon that can’t ge hooked up to a car.”

Reporting is not a paper product

A poster on the Baseball Primer Newsblog wondered if I’d dissed newspaper writers in my post “Newspaper crisis means MLB plays in secret.” I’d spoofed the idea that the shrinking of the ranks of beat writers due to newsroom layoffs and cutbacks was damaging coverage of major league baseball.

“There is value to the day in-day out reporting those beat writers perform, though,” wrote “Holliday in Alameda (jonathan).” He went on, “I mean I get his overall point, but I hope he’s not also trying to belittle what the newspapermen have been doing. Without those guys, we get no trade rumors, no injury details, etc. etc.”

I was not belittling what newspaper beat writers have done and continue to do. It’s honest work, done brilliantly by some, well by others and so on down the spectrum to hacktastically by a few.

But there’s a lot of redundancy. I’ve been in that pack, knowing I was writing essentially the same story a bunch of other writers were writing. It’s good to have myriad voices covering all sorts of things. The straight reporting — the gamer, in newspaper parlance — of the outcome of a baseball game is probably not one of them. The idea that the loss of some newspaper beat writers is having any real affect on overall baseball coverage this year, as the piece I took off from posited, is silly.

But beyond that, the commenter is raising a point that I hear a lot in the various conversations about the future of journalism that have become a constant in my life lately: Without newspapers, reporting dies. The Internet is fine for commentary and analysis and snark and flame wars, but to get the raw material, there must be newspapers.

It’s not true. By a lot.

This point of view, reporting needs newspapers, presumes that newspapers have invested in long-term reporting, beats and investigations, out of charity, out of the goodness of their hearts, or at least out of altruism.

Newspapers aren’t altruistic. Newspaper people are, overwhelmingly so. But as an institution, a newspaper isn’t altruistic. It’s a business. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself why newspapers are chopping expensive reporters and beats and keeping the crossword puzzle. Shouldn’t they keep the important stuff to the bitter end?

What newspapers are doing when they’re pursuing those expensive Big Important Stories is polishing the brand. The Big Important Story might play an important part in the civil discourse, but it also brings prestige and power to the paper. Have you ever seen a newspaper fail to market its journalism awards or any effect it’s had on the world?

People mostly buy the paper for the ball scores and the crossword and the TV listings — or they did, anyway, when they bought papers. The prestigious stories don’t sell a lot of copies directly. The local team winning the Super Bowl does that. But there are secondary effects. The better the journalism, for example, the easier it is to attract and retain the best talent — who can help you sell more papers.

But forget all that. Let’s either assume the last four paragraphs are completely wrong or just imagine that newspapers do what they do out of pure, uncomplicated altruism. The local blat puts a reporter in the courthouse because, goshdarnit, it’s the right damn thing to do.

Why is it the right thing to do? Because our society has a need for watchdogs on its institutions, a need for information about itself. Newspapers didn’t create that need. They were invented to fill it. Circumstances have changed so that newspapers are no longer an effective way to fill that need. That hasn’t made the need go away.

So why wouldn’t somebody or something step in to fill it?

Imagine yourself walking around 200 years ago, when newspapers as we recognize them today were just coming into being. You’d probably notice the smell first. You’d be walking around in what by our standards would be a brutish, unsanitary, segregated, uneducated, technologically backward place.

Those people figured out how to get the news to each other! And we, with all our education, worldliness, technology and education, with the lessons of the last 200 years, with the ideas of both men and women, of people of every color and religion from all over the world, not just white men from Europe and the United States — we can’t figure out the same thing?

Newspapers have been struggling for the blink of an eye — a few years, not even a decade. And because nobody has figured out in that millisecond how to make money online from reporting, that’s it? Democracy is doomed? Reporting is dead?

It’s patently absurd. There are better arguments for the earth being flat.

Newspaper crisis means MLB plays in secret

Terrible news on the death of newspapers front. A USA Today report the other day told the story in its headline. Shrinking newsrooms put squeeze on MLB coverage.

Reporter Mel Antonen notes that membership in the Baseball Writers Association of America is off by 65 writers this year, reflective of newsroom layoffs and newspapers ceasing or sharing beat coverage. The Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram, for example, share beat writers covering the Texas Rangers.

Those papers have always been competitors, but now they’ve united against a common enemy: their obsolescence.

Antonen paraphrases Los Angeles Dodgers exec Josh Rawitch noting the drop in newspaper reporters covering teams. A dozen or so traveled with the Dodgers in the early ’90s, compared to just two this season, plus the beat writer.

I wonder how long MLB and most of its teams will keep using the “press box space” excuse when denying credentials to online writers.

Rawitch also points out that the loss of newspaper writers affects radio and TV stations that, in Antonen’s words, “need fodder from newspaper accounts of the games and notes.”

This of course is a microcosm of the larger crisis in journalism. Without newspapers, there simply isn’t enough raw information. I mean, I’m really having trouble following this baseball season so far, aren’t you? There just isn’t enough information out there. Never mind radio and TV stations. Won’t somebody please think of the bloggers?

My first thought when I saw Rawitch’s I.D. as a Dodgers exec was “I was just wondering whether they were still in the league.” With so many newspaper reporters dropping off the beat, it’s like baseball’s being played in secret.

What are we all going to do with only three beat reporters writing that Shlabotnik scored from second on Casey’s single, instead of 12? How can we really understand the game, I mean really get to the bottom of it, if Shlabotnik’s postgame quote — “I saw Casey hit it and I just ran” — is only scribbled in three notebooks, not a dozen?

The BBWAA lost a net 65 writers this year, Antonen reports, even after its forward-thinking decision to allow 22 Interthingy typists in. You can see for yourself how the BBWAA has its finger on the pulse of the modern world by Googling it.

Search baseball writers association of america and the organization’s home page does not appear in the first 100 results. Most people use Google’s default configuration of 10 results per page, and it’s common knowledge in the SEO world — you can Google that, BBWAA people — that hardly anybody looks beyond Page 1 of their results. The BBWAA home page would be absent from the first 10 pages.

There are three matches for pages on the BBWAA site among the first 100, including the second and third result, a press release about the 2009 Hall of Fame vote and the organization’s awards page.

It’s pretty much the same story if you search for BBWAA.

I’m sparing you the links to those pages because they include the eye-assaulting bright green background that until recently all BBWAA pages sported. Note to BBWAA: Maybe you’re losing members because you’ve blinded the ones who’ve checked your site?

The home page has recently been redesigned with a vision-preserving white background, so it’s safe to say: Here it is.

Now: Weren’t the Yankees and Mets supposed to open new stadiums this year? Has anybody heard anything? These really are dark times.