May 19, 2005

Newspapers doomed to die?

That’s a tentative diagnosis for major dailies that Kevin Drum makes over at Washington Monthly.

If it does happen, he says liberal/progressive bloggers such as yours truly will bear part of the blame for carping against the mainstream media.

First, let me say that the picture is not that bleak. Second, as far as legitimate complaints against seven-day dailies, from me at least, they are by no means restricted to coverage of major national and international political news, along with op-ed writing on such.

In big cities, alt-weekly newspapers are generally thriving. Their combination of snarkiness plus harder-hitting news and op-ed coverage of local news puts the local/metropolitan + op/ed staffs to shame.

And that's point one of my complaints. Here in Dallas, for example, I can get AP/Reuters/AFP news off Yahoo, Google, or whatever. But, I can't read about the Dallas City Council, Dallas County Commissioners Court, etc., NOR about the appointed commissions such as Planning and Zoning, etc., except in The Dallas Morning News or the alt-weekly Observer.

And the paid dailies, from my experience in other cities of reasonable size, such as St. Louis, Kansas City, Fort Worth, Flint, Mich., as well as Dallas, just plain suck at this. I don’t know about the biggies of the biggies, i.e., New York, L.A. and Washington, but to some degree, the bigger the daily, the worse it sucks at this, from my experience. The three just-mentioned cities have special angles on local news due to Washington as the seat of power, the finance industry in New York and ubiquitous Hollywood and TV land in L.A.

Frankly, I think if more dailies would recognize that this is a problem in their coverage, trim Washington bureaus as much as that may seem a loss of face, etc., and plow MORE into urban/suburban coverage -- including facing directly lingering white flight issues, etc., they would be much better papers and probably better-subscribed, too.

To a lesser degree, this is what suburban weeklies and semiweeklies do. And, to the degree they do it well (along with more in-depth coverage of local school district sports) their circulations are at least holding steady if not rising.

I am the editor of a suburban Dallas weekly. I’ve been here for more than five years, and have been the assistant managing editor of our five newspaper group for the past year as well.

We have better-income blacks and Hispanics, as well as some whites who aren't moving north to the “right” side of the Trinity moving to my part of suburban Dallas. To the degree they want to be locally involved, our circ numbers are picking up.

So, suburban papers aren’t dying, either.

As for what to do with the Internet, mid-sized six-days and small seven-days are going to a paid subscription model. I can’t believe that member dailies can’t work with the AP and Reuters, as well as those news agencies working with Yahoo, Google, etc., to set up some nominal pay system if they feel it is in all business parties’ best interest.

Of course, speaking of business, that’s part of the problem.

More than ever, the bottom line is the bottom line at major dailies. American Journalism Review had as its lead story in April the sad state of affairs here in Dallas at the News. Much of the problems were ultimately driven by bad decisions, bad numbers or both in advertising, marketing and circulation. Editorial has had its own problems on local/metro news, but they weren’t insurmountable.

Many of those decisions, in turn, are in a weird, sometimes in-sync, sometimes out-of-sync, dance with poor editorial decisions on local news coverage, and editorial/circulation decisions on zoned editions, the number of them, how much zoned coverage to provide and more.