The death of the American newspaper is, to echo Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated, but the vital signs of our nation's big dailies are worrisome. The industry magazine Editor & Publisher announced this week it was folding after 125 years. A study released in early December by the U.S. Department of Labor found the "information industry" had lost 86,400 jobs between November 2008 and November 2009. As of this week, American newspapers had lost 14,713 jobs in 2009, according to the Web site Paper Cuts (www.graphicdesignr.net/papercuts). But there were signs of hope, too, particularly for locally owned and locally focused publications such as Gambit.
It was a particularly brutal year for the big dogs. The Los Angeles Times began 2009 by announcing its fourth round of layoffs in 12 months. The New York Times finished the year by cutting 100 newsroom positions. The Washington Post closed its last U.S. bureaus — in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. Papers of all sizes have been hard-hit, including some closer to home. The Jeanerette Enterprise, a 67-year-old paper in Iberia Parish that served a town of 6,000, went out of business in May.
The industry's troubles have nothing to do with ideology, either. The reliably liberal San Francisco Chronicle spent most of 2009 flailing, while one of the nation's most conservative newspaper chains, Morris Publishing Group, publisher of The Augusta Chronicle and the Florida Times-Union, had to restructure to avoid filing bankruptcy this year.
The reasons for the decline are many and interrelated. National advertising in large dailies has been siphoned off by other outlets or simply declined. The news cycle has sped up. Many readers now get their news online for free. And, of course, some of the industry's woes lie with the owners themselves. Most failed to see the coming impact of the Internet back in the 1990s, and many overspent wildly in the go-go years.
This also has been the year that newspaper woes began to lap at New Orleans' monopoly daily. The Times-Picayune remains one of the stronger papers in the Advance Publications chain, but a combination of early retirement packages and buyouts saw some of the paper's best-known reporters and photographers departing this year in anticipation of expected layoffs in 2010. For our part, Gambit adjusted to the new realities (and avoided layoffs) by decreasing its newsprint size and taking other cost-cutting measures.
In fact, for all the misery in our industry, 2009 has been a relatively good year for Gambit and many other locally owned, locally focused newspapers. Circulation at community papers has stabilized, according to audits performed by the Circulation Verification Council. Colby Atwood, president of Borrell Associates, a company that tracks advertising patterns, sees a rebound ahead and says the newspapers that thrive in the future will be the ones focusing locally — precisely what alt-weeklies have done for decades. Alt-weeklies also fare well against the Internet by being free, as opposed to paid-circulation dailies.
This "new normal" in newspapering is simply the free market at work — although the loss of even one newspaper is sad for a society that depends on independent watchdogs. When it's doing its job and not distracted by celebrity fluff and tabloid minutiae, the American press ferrets out corruption and skullduggery, scrutinizes politicians' claims and checks them against the record, and holds leaders accountable to their real bosses, the people. More than any other media, newspapers are uniquely suited to complex, "pull-the-thread" stories. Print reporters spend time researching, interviewing and generally following threads to see where they lead. Often the threads lead nowhere, but sometimes an entire garment falls apart. All this takes time and money, two things in short supply in many newsrooms right now. Many newspapers are going from "All the news that's fit to print" to "All the news we can fit."
In the long run, the newspapers that survive will be those that have a special bond with their readers — and we count ourselves among them. Also, cities like New Orleans, with its history of corruption, will always need a press that pulls no punches and follows every thread. Our challenge in these challenging times will be finding ways to fulfill that mission. Our pledge to our readers is that we remain as committed as ever to fulfilling it. You're not going away. Neither are we.