Last winter Frank Blethen, CEO and fourth generation owner of The Seattle Times, stood in front of Washington State University’s graduating class and warned of an end to a free press. The students may have been hoping for a blustery send-off. Instead they heard a call to arms. “America is in crisis,” he told them, describing an underfunded and collapsing newspaper journalism business. Newspapers play a crucial role in a democracy, he told them; they report on government, public issues, and community life.
Blethen, a member of WSU’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication’s board of advisors, made his speech not just for his own struggling business, but for a whole industry. Newspapers around the country are in bankruptcy, others have just gone away. Since Blethen spoke in Pullman, the Rocky Mountain News, The Ann Arbor News, and Seattle’s other news institution, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (P-I), have ceased printing. With the losses of revenues, reporters, and even entire businesses, 2009 may be the worst newspaper year on record.
Media critic A.J. Liebling warned of this day, though it was years before it came to pass. In his 1964 book The Press he wrote: “The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role in society is to make money.” As revenue dependent businesses, newspapers are doomed to fail.
You’ve probably heard it already—papers around the country are weakened by shrinking advertising revenue, especially as internet services like eBay and Craigslist capture much of the classified ad market. Then the collapse in the U.S. economy pushed more papers over the edge. The notion that newspapers are struggling because they have lost their audience, or that they have lost credibility, is not accurate, according to a revealing State of the News Media report released by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism last spring. It’s about revenue.
On March 17 Seattle transformed from a city with two daily papers to one. The P-I, a fixture since 1863, ended its print edition and emptied out its second-floor newsroom. “The day the P-I shut down was a profound day here,” says David Boardman, executive editor of The Seattle Times. “It certainly wasn’t a day of celebration.” The region lost more than 100 journalists, many of whom were stellar writers and reporters who had covered the city and community for decades.
“But I think we’re far better off with one healthy newspaper than two struggling newspapers,” says Boardman. “Healthy” is a relative term. The Times also suffered major reductions in the past few years. Citing serious revenue shortfalls in the spring of 2008, Blethen announced cutbacks and layoffs, including up to 30 employees from the newsroom. Then the economy worsened and last November he announced another 10 percent reduction in the overall workforce including in his newsroom of 260. Today the news staff is much leaner, admits Boardman. It lost production workers, copy editors, and feature reporters. But in August Blethen told The New York Times that his paper may have weathered the storm. It was seeing a return to monthly profit, and its circulation is up. It will survive for the next generation of Blethens including his son Ryan ’99.
Still, newspapers around the Puget Sound have vanished. In the 1970s, Auburn, Kent, Bellevue, and Renton each had their own dailies. By the 1990s, those dailies were bought up and consolidated to two papers, the South County Journal and the Eastside Journal. Then in 2002, they became one paper, the King County Journal, which stopped publishing in 2007. And The Seattle Times, which once had an eight-person bureau on the east side of Lake Washington, now has just two reporters covering one of the most populated areas of the state from the Seattle newsroom.
Who is out there attending city council meetings and covering museum openings? Who is investigating stories in the public interest or writing the slice-of-life pieces that help communities to define themselves? Who is watching the politicians?
A few years ago, reporters had to fight for a spot at the press table at the state capitol. More than 30 reporters covered the legislature in 1990. By last July that number had dwindled to seven. While the state’s leaders may be enjoying the lack of scrutiny, they recognized the financial plight of the newspapers and the dangers of no media coverage. In July they offered a 40 percent business tax break.
The Seattle Times, which now just has one reporter in Olympia, is sorting out how to do more with less. Boardman says he is not really fretting about just how far he can spread his remaining reporters, but concedes that the Times’s editors have to be more strategic about directing coverage so stories and major events don’t get missed. “We certainly feel a lot more burden from it,” he says.
The dilemma isn’t specific to Seattle. The News Tribune in Tacoma and The Spokesman-Review in Spokane have both cut their staffs. The state also lost two smaller papers with closing of the Cowlitz County Advocate and the Lewis River News.
Back to the Future
What’s left? Seattle, Tacoma, Vancouver, Spokane, the Tri-Cities, Bellingham, and Yakima still have papers, though with reduced staffs. And employees have had to take furloughs and accept cuts to their own salaries to keep their jobs. Some of the most talented and experienced writers and editors have moved out of journalism altogether.
But the daily papers are now working together to find ways to survive. Once competitors, the Times and the News Tribune now meet at the line between King and Pierce counties where they trade papers for distribution. They also trade stories from newsroom to newsroom.
The idea of an exchange came from Boardman, who realized that by sharing resources with other trusted news entities, the readers would have a better, more complete product in the end. “We all just sort of held hands and took the dive together,” he says. “The people of the state are better served by us sharing resources.”
Nation-wide one out of every five people working in a newsroom in 2000 was gone by the beginning of 2009, according to the Pew Center for Research. There are fewer people telling stories and fewer stories being told.
An Information (Dark) Age?
While newspaper reporters may not be showing up at school board meetings and courthouse hearings, there are still eyes and ears out there—and people willing to report back to the public. In some cases it’s the agency itself broadcasting news online.
The Washington Secretary of State’s office has a blog. King County has a news blog, a council budget blog, and even a solid waste disposal blog.
In other cases, it’s the citizens in the community who do the reporting. West Seattle has a neighborhood news blog that started in 2006 as a volunteer effort, but recently became a business by selling advertising on its Web site. One day this summer, the frequently-updated site put out an alert for a hit-and-run sideswiper, covered state cuts in the Department of Corrections, noted a bridge closure, and wrote about the opening of a new pizza restaurant.
It’s one of the better community blogs out there, says Boardman. It has good news content and credible reporting, and many of its contributors have worked as journalists for other publications.
The West Seattle blog recently joined with The Seattle Times and other Seattle-area community blogs including the Magnolia Voice and the Rainier Valley Post in a Networked Journalism Pilot Project to find ways the newspaper and the local blogs can collaborate on news tips and reporting. The project is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Not all online news sources are equal, says Lawrence Pintak, dean of WSU’s Murrow College.
The future of journalism could be in the internet, he says. But most Americans don’t have the time or patience to wade through everything. “There’s not enough time in the day to sit in front of C-Span,” he says. “It is essential that we have journalists to provide those summaries for us… to filter the information into a digestible form.”
The past few years have brought the rise of the “citizen journalist,” people who report through blogs, Web sites, and major news organization forums. “That can be a good thing,” says Pintak.
Armed with video cameras and digital recorders and with access to the internet, anyone can communicate to the general public. There are a lot of eyes and ears out there, and they’re putting detailed information about major events online.
Some are activists promoting a cause. Some are blogs that provide more opinion than fact. They aren’t all credible, and not all should be trusted. “At the end of the day it’s just every Joe on the street and every Jill on the street writing about what he or she sees… Just because you have a computer and a video cell phone doesn’t mean you are a journalist,” he says. “We leave ourselves prey to misinformation and disinformation. It can be very dangerous.”
The Murrow College could have a role training citizen journalists—providing workshops on the mores and ethics of journalism, schooling on how to access public records and meetings, and the basics of media law—things reporters once learned from those whom Pintak calls the “grizzled old editors in the newsroom.”
And society is going to have to learn media literacy. “Everybody doesn’t necessarily know that Web site X is a left-wing biased political screed and Web site Y is a right-wing biased political creed and that Web site Z is a balanced, credible news source,” he says.
The Web is a cacophony of voices where everyone has access to say what they want. “The key is to help readers navigate this tidal wave of information for the best source,” says Benjamin Shors, a clinical assistant professor in the Murrow College who teaches topics including reporting on the government. While most of his students won’t graduate into newspaper jobs, they’ll leave knowing how to find trusted news sources as well as how to get information for themselves, he says.
Pintak believes communications schools like the Murrow College could shape journalism of the future both online and off. “We have two PBS stations, radio, and satellite campuses,” he says. Nobody is as well placed to try out new things. “We can serve as a laboratory for new models of journalism.”
Nonprofit journalism is a possible course. “There’s obviously so little investment in the industry right now. Universities are in a unique position to work with foundations to try out new approaches and find out what will work.” He can see one scenario where news agencies, like universities, would receive endowments from foundations and run with a portion of the revenue coming from gifts rather than advertising.
And while the internet is a very good system for news delivery, nobody has really figured out how to make it pay—how to cover the salaries and health care for the journalists out there gathering the news of the community.
“No one knows how it’s going to shake out,” says Pintak. And for a while, it’s going to be confusing. “But something will inevitably take the place of the old model.”
Reinventing the Field
Photographer Rajah Bose ’02 knew he could be laid off from The Spokesman-Review from the day he started the job in January 2008. “It seemed like a natural step to come up to a bigger newspaper,” he says of his departure from the Tri-City Herald. The Spokesman’s editors told him they didn’t expect any more cutbacks, but there was always a slim possibility. “Still, I would have taken the job if it was a guaranteed layoff,” he says. “I needed to move up to the next step, and I was able to work with the people I really wanted to work with.”
He had less than a year. That October editor Steve Smith called a meeting and named 22 people, including Bose, to be laid off. Bose felt worse for his colleagues than for himself. “People lost their jobs that had been there eight years, people who had families to support,” he says. “I don’t have anybody at home waiting for a check. As long as I can get dog food, I’m OK.”
Bose lived on unemployment for a couple of months, and fielded calls from friends and colleagues around the state who offered encouragement and even freelance work. Today, he has a new work life in an aged brick building a few blocks south and east of The Spokesman-Review. Bose and Brian Immel ’07 and another friend have set up a creative studio. It’s their place to do…whatever. Projects, meeting clients over a wedding shoot, portraits—Bose now has the space.
“I shot something for The New York Times last week, I had a wedding the weekend before that,” he says. “I’m still telling stories.” But there’s less shooting and more meetings, and much more keeping track of bills, schedules, and paperwork. “Still, I’m having a great time with it,” says Bose.
Today, if he had a chance to go back to the paper, he’d probably pass. “I have to lay down my own track,” he says. “I would rather do what I’m doing now and see where it goes than take that risk again.”
“Reinvention does not usually come from managers prudently charting course. It tends to come from risk takers trying the unreasonable, seeing what others cannot, imagining what is not there and creating it. We did not see much of it when times were better. Times are harder now.” —the Pew State of the Media Report
The future is in the hands of the next generation of journalists— those who have sampled life at a newspaper and have been forced to move on.
Nick Eaton ’07 is the only news employee to be hired by the P-I after it shuttered its print edition. He’s the oddball, he admits, going to a paper after it stops printing. But in the two years since he graduated, Eaton has been through more of a grist mill than most veteran journalists. After leaving WSU, Eaton found a job at The Spokesman-Review. He started interning on the business desk, but was soon moved into the night police reporter beat. Then out of the blue he was moved to Pullman to cover Cougar athletics.
Six months and he was moved back to Spokane after a senior reporter reclaimed the WSU beat. Eaton survived two layoff cycles. He was moved around some more and ultimately, because he was a newer hire, was laid off with Bose in October. Having already been through the ringer a few times since graduation, Eaton moved home to Seattle. “There was nothing left for me in Spokane,” he says.
He applied to at least 40 jobs: tech writing, Microsoft, the Associated Press, fellowships. He didn’t hesitate to send an e-mail to the P-I when the paper shut down. “I’ve been through this before, I know sometimes things open up,” he says. The first answer was no. Then a few days later he got a call to come interview. “That was a Tuesday. I went in on Wednesday, and by Thursday had an offer,” he says. While the presses had stopped, the Web site lived on with a news staff of 20 doing everything from running the site to writing and editing stories. The first few weeks were very strange, says Eaton. They were on the second floor where the newsroom had been, a lively, exciting place when he was there a few years earlier as an intern, but now the desks were empty. It was quiet, save for the phones. “Every few minutes one of us would answer and say, ‘I’m sorry, she doesn’t work here anymore,’” he says.
The editors soon realized they needed stories that would draw readers online, and bring more ad revenue, so they shifted his beat from education to technology, namely Microsoft. His contribution to the future of news may be in helping the P-I reinvent itself as a Web-only news source.
His WSU classmate Lisa Waananen ’08 has taken a different route. She didn’t wait for a layoff when she left her newspaper job in 2008. Realizing the newspaper job market was shrinking, she set her sights on graduate school.
“It’s easy to be unequivocally dedicated to journalism when you’re still in college and putting in long but glorious hours at the college paper. It becomes harder (and even foolhardy) when you see half those college friends get laid off and the other half considered lucky when they work 60 hours a week at rural papers for $10.15 an hour,” she wrote in her application essay to Columbia University.
In spite of the shrinking papers and vanishing jobs, Waananen is dedicated to journalism—whatever form it eventually takes. She is now studying digital media at Columbia.
In most cases, the online versions of newspapers have been side projects, operating alongside the “real” news efforts. Maybe that was their fatal mistake, says Waananen. Now everyone goes to the Web for at least some of their news. Whatever the future holds, knowing how to present stories online will be critical.
“I think the education I get at Columbia will make me a better journalist, but also will make me more marketable,” she says. To do what, she doesn’t yet know.
The immediate future promises more confusion and career changes as the news business sorts out how to survive.
Waananen hopes she’ll leave grad school with a plan for doing the work that she loves—even if it isn’t on paper. “If we’re doing something we think is important, we should be working hard for it.”
On the Web
Newspaper Deathwatch :: Founded in 2007 and dedicated to “Chronicling the Decline of Newspapers and the Rebirth of Journalism”