When Johann Gutenberg introduced movable type, he put a lot of scribes out of work. As the Internet has offered alternatives to “old media,” it has put some newspapers out of business. Stuff happens.
The News Tribune is in no threat of going under, but the Post-Intelligencer, one of Seattle’s two daily newspapers, is dying. Unless it finds a buyer quickly – a very unlikely prospect for an enterprise that loses about $14 million a year – it may be dead by spring.
Journalists and many other Americans mourn the loss of a major newspaper, especially one that has published since the 19th century. But newspapers are commercial enterprises, and enterprises do fail in a free economy. Their employees suffer immensely when they are thrown out of work, but so do other workers who lose their jobs.
In a dynamic, wealth-creating economy, there have to be losers if there are to be winners. As businesses, newspapers deserve no extra pity.
What ought to worry people – for the sake of democracy, not newspaper owners – is a net loss of reporting. Thomas Jefferson famously said that, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
His point was that self-government can’t work unless citizens are well-informed, especially about public affairs.
Traditionally, newspapers filled that critical role of informing the public. Radio and then television began sharing the mission in the last century. Now a lot of journalism is happening on Web sites, including newspaper Web sites. Nearly all of it is free, and readers are migrating in that direction.
One problem: At present, freebie journalism on the Web cannot support anything like the large newsrooms of the old media.
If the P-I folds, many of its reporters won’t be able to find reporting jobs online – at least not the kind of jobs that can feed families, pay mortgages and send children to college. They’ll go into other lines of work, such as teaching or public relations.
The ranks of professional reporters have declined across the country as newsrooms have been squeezed by declining revenues at both profitable and failing newspapers. We hope this trend proves very temporary.
Right now, the Internet does not fill the gap. Its countless commentators don’t provide news; they recycle it. Many of its independent reporters are part-timers on a shoestring budget who lack the time, means or expertise to ferret out the big stories a good newsroom can produce.
Examples: Exposures of mortgage-lending corruption within Washington Mutual, shocking mistreatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed, and toxic chemicals in medicine and toys imported from China.
Only skilled reporters – in print or online – can break stories like those. If news staffs are dwindling and good reporters are looking for other jobs, the job of being an informed citizen is getting tougher.