Don't blame the Internet, or the owners

On the day of 60 "early retirements" from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, columnist Bill McClellan feels like a dinosaur witnessing the end of his era, and he points to two meteoric events. One is the arrival of the Internet. The other is corporate ownership.

That's probably a popular viewpoint in most newsrooms these days. And there is some truth to it. But in the big picture it's wrong.

Newspapers, particularly the flagship major metros, aren't in trouble because of the Internet and corporate ownership. They're in trouble for a whole lot of reasons that all too often get overlooked. They include:

  • Journalistic arrogance, the dark side of the professionalization that took place in the 20th century. The arrogant authoritarianism of newspaper journalism set us up for a fall. A lot of people just plain don't like us.
  • Big changes in consumer retailing. Local department stores like St. Louis' Famous, Barr & Co. and Stix, Baer & Fuller are no longer around to buy those big full-age ads on A3 featuring women in their underwear. We shop now at suburban malls, Wal-Mart and Best Buy. National chain-store branding and physical location have displaced local merchandise advertising as a primary marketing tool. Much of the retail advertising that newspapers still get has moved from high-dollar ROP to low-dollar inserts.
  • Explosive growth in broadcast and cable TV. Sometime in the 1990s, newspapers lost their grip on the morning, replaced by television, just as newspapers lost their grip on the evenings in the 1970s. As the eyeballs have migrated from print to TV to cable, so has a lot of small-business advertising. Pretty much every cable carrier has a sales force (or is contracted with one) that's out calling on sole-proprietor businesses in strip malls and shopping centers. A lot of those folks never see a newspaper ad salesperson.
  • A long, slow slide toward irrelevancy through the loss of readership driven by generational change. Using General Social Survey data, Philip Meyer has documented the decline of newspaper readership since 1970, and it's easy to see that something other than the Internet is at work. Even if the Internet had never happened, newspapers -- especially big-city papers -- have long been headed for a dangerous inflection point at which their market penetration would not be sufficient to sustain a mass-media business model.
  • The iPod, the Xbox, the DVD player and every other electronic toy and gizmo that sucks up time and attention, ultimately competing with the act of reading and the very concept of being involved in
    local civic life.
  • Market fluctuations. I'm the first person to point at longterm trends and ignore the short-term cycles, but in this case we're experiencing both climate change and very nasty weather. There is a deep malaise in the American economy right now, and it's much worse than any of the spinners in Washington will admit. Maybe if we hadn't wasted $455 billion in a fit of neocon world-domination arrogance, we wouldn't be facing a wrecked economy.
  • The Internet, and the corporate ownership model. I don't want to let them off the hook entirely. I just want to point out that it's not one or two meteoric events that have put us where we are today.

(Note: I worked in St. Louis in the 1970s and 1980s at the Globe-Democrat, which went out of business in 1986.)