Revenues shrinking to MicroMachine proportions, newsroom jobs disappearing like sand under a rising tide, “They’ll Do It Every Time” discontinued: Is this, as the New York Observer asks, the worst year ever for the modern newspaper business? Here are five other contenders:
1931: The New York World, acclaimed as “the best-informed, best-informing paper in the country,” closes after Joseph Pulitzer’s sons defy their father’s will and sell the paper to Scripps-Howard for $5 million. The World’s dissolution presaged the coming era of newspaper consolidation. Although nominally amalgamated into a new entity called the New York World-Telegram, the independent editorial spirit that defined the old World did not carry. Columnist Frank Sullivan: “When I die I want to go wherever the World has gone, and work on it again.”
1957: Paul Miller succeeds Frank Gannett as president of the Gannett chain of newspapers. By the time he retired in 1978, Miller had transformed Gannett from a relatively small family-owned business into a nationwide chain of nearly eighty newspapers. Miller was the standard-bearer of what A.J. Liebling would call “the march to private monopoly and its inevitable, because profitable, consequences—newspapers newsless or filled with synthetic “news.” This is an economic process like the displacement of oranges from “orange drink.”
1963: Seven million Americans find out what it would be like to get along without newspapers—and, from most reports, they get along fine. The production staffers for New York’s daily newspapers waged a 114-day strike, which shut down all of the city’s dailies, cost nearly $200 million and put the New York Mirror out of business. “There was inconvenience for the readers and the merchants lost money—but there was nothing like fear; and that was because citizens, by radio if by no other means, could still discern the broad outline of what was going on,” wrote Carl Lindstrom in 1964’s The Fading American Newspaper.
1982: USA Today launches under the following motto: “An economy of words, a wealth of information.” A decent newspaper that is unfairly maligned, USA Today—the brainchild of Paul Miller’s successor, Al Neuharth—nonetheless came to emblematize a news ethic that emphasized gloss and presentation over depth and thought that all regions of the country were, essentially, interested in the same things. There’s nothing wrong with presenting a wealth of information—but as soon as the public becomes able to access that information itself, via the Internet and other means, all that’s left for newspapers is an economy of words.
1999: Craigslist.org, the free online classified-ad service founded as a free email list by entrepreneur Craig Newmark, incorporates. At the vanguard of the Internet ad revolution, Craiglist was and is a prime example of how online outlets can offer advertisers a better, cheaper way to reach their clientele. Who buys classified ads in newspapers any more?
Any anni horribiles that I’m missing?Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.