On newspapers

Before the summer of 1998, I don’t think I’d ever interacted with a newspaper in an appreciable way. The dew-covered sleeves of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch always rested on the kitchen counter when I came downstairs in the morning; my mother was an is an early riser, and she’d walk up the hill of our driveway around 6 a.m. to get the paper each day.

Back then, my mother read the paper cover-to-cover, and my dad started reading it in the doctor’s lounge of the hospital where he works and finished it at home in the evening if he hadn’t had too long of a day. I loved the smell of newspaper, sharp and kind of earthy, but that was about it — until 1998.

That’s when I began to run downstairs every morning and grab the sports section out of the pile. My mother knew she’d better finish it before I was up, because after that, it was mine. I checked the baseball box scores: Had the Cardinals game ended after I’d fallen asleep? Had the Cubs? The Mariners certainly had most of the time. I needed to know who had a hit a home run, and how many, and was Mark McGwire leading the race over Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey Jr.? There was a sense of urgency to my baseball consumption, the kind of frenzy that only a 10-year-old can feel about a steroid-fueled race that would last until the 162-game season’s final days. Then, once my numbers were in order and my heart rate had slowed, I’d check out what Rick Hummel had to say about whatever the Cardinals (who were mediocre) and McGwire (who was earth-shattering) had done the night before.

Twenty-one years later, this simply is not how kids get their baseball news (if kids are watching baseball in the first place). They’re getting alerts on their phones, watching games through streaming services, tracking fantasy stats on apps. But newspapers still bring local analysis you’re hard-pressed to find elsewhere — of sports, and of many more important things. You see, after the home run race ended, I kept reading the newspaper. I moved on from the sports section to the front page. I read the 100 Neediest Cases every holiday season, the comics and even snippets about local government that I couldn’t yet quite grasp. Eventually, I even picked up the second, more daunting paper that was tossed to our driveway every morning: The Wall Street Journal.

Over the course of my career in sports writing, which lasted nearly a decade until its current hiatus, I only worked at a newspaper for one football season (plus the two years I spent in graduate school writing for the Columbia Missourian). But newspapers still loom large over my life in and regard of journalism, and they’re in trouble. (This is not breaking news, but bear with me here.) Last week, Margaret Sullivan at The Washington Post wrote a gutting story about the future of local newspapers, which prompted the musings that led to this blog post. The headline: “The death knell for local newspapers? It’s perilously close.”

Sullivan points to several recent developments, both sudden and gradual, that spurred her column. In the “sudden” category, there’s the news from last Tuesday that Alden Global Capital, professional strip-miners of newspapers, bought a massive stake of the Chicago Tribune. Alden has already gutted the one paper I worked for, the Denver Post, as well as the San Jose Mercury News. The Trib and other papers in the Tribune newspaper group appear to be Alden’s next targets for vaporization.

In addition, the merger of Gannett at GateHouse, two large newspaper chains, has been churning along for a while now, and it was finalized this month, bringing with it the news of a looming $300 million in job cuts.

And then there’s the situation at McClatchy, another newspaper chain that’s so over-leveraged as to be close to bankruptcy. That projection also came to light last week.

I’ll leave you to read Sullivan’s column for her analysis of the situation as a whole; she’s much more experienced in the world of newspapers than I am. There are a whole lot of out-there ideas that might save newspapers: non-profit status, foundations, you name it — a lot of ideas that depend on some level of public benevolence. And I don’t know if that benevolence exists, necessarily, even if it absolutely should. This morning, my mother sat next to me reading The Wall Street Journal and then commented that she’s going to drop the subscription next year. My parents already quit the Post-Dispatch. I urged her not to, then finished with a plea to at least keep online access. She countered and said she thinks she can get online access for free through an Apple platform — which I can’t imagine does a lot for the Journal’s finances.

And places like The Wall Street Journal aren’t the places I’m concerned about. The New York Times will be fine. So will The Washington Post, and now even The Los Angeles Times appears on surer footing. It’s the Post-Dispatch, the Times-Picayune/Advocate/whatever they’re calling the paper in New Orleans these days, the papers in places like Albuquerque and Columbus and Tallahassee and Tulsa. The informed public is always going to have a place to read about impeachment trials and billionaires declaring for the presidential race, but it seems like readers in this country are teetering on the brink of having nowhere to go to learn about city council meetings and corrupt local alderman or even the 100 neediest cases in a mid-sized city in December. Which leaves us with what, exactly? Facebook? Nextdoor? Some other brand of occasionally informed and generally blathering crowd-funded nonsense?

The decline of newspapers right now is a vicious cycle. Smaller and mid-sized and even humongous papers aren’t making the money they used to, so they can’t pay talented reporters and writers what they’re worth, so those talented reporters and writers migrate to online or to the few papers that can occasionally pay something that looks more like a living wage. Others stick around in less-visible jobs — because mid-sized and small papers do have plenty of smart and nuanced voices, if you take the time to subscribe and find them rather than whine about a paywall — but staffs shrink, and reporters who were once pulled in three different directions are now pulled in 17, and deadlines get earlier because papers start leasing out their printing presses for some extra dough, and readers like my mother who don’t understand this begin to complain about the depth of coverage. Fair enough. Benevolence, gone. But it’s not the reporters who are to blame. It’s the circumstances, circumstances that might improve if we could all agree that news is worth paying for and newspapers are worth saving from private equity sharks.

For a million reasons, we need newspapers. And despite the hour I spent rambling here, I probably won’t be the person to convince anyone of this fact. But imagine a world without the smell of newsprint.

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