What Is Black and White but No Longer Read All Over?

The McClatchy Company, which owns 30 newspapers including the Kansas City Star and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Sacramento Bee and the Charlotte Observer and the Miami Herald, filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy Thursday. Which is perhaps the worst news any of those papers will report today.
For one thing, McClatchy owes us a pension for the 25 years we spent toiling at one of the newspapers it acquired when it bought out the once-formidable Knight-Ridder Company. McClatchy has more than pensioners for every active employee, which is one of the many reasons for its bankruptcy filing, but the plan is to have the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation take over most of its obligations, and although that’s in negotiations we’re hopeful it works out.
For another thing, and of more importance to the rest of the world, the bankruptcy is yet another sign of the rapid decline of American newspapers, and we’re not at all hopeful that will soon change. All of McClatchy’s newsrooms will continue to operate for now, with help from $50 million of financing from a company called Encina Business Credit, and if the courts agree they’ll eventually be owned by a hedge fund called Chatham Asset Management LLC, but they have no experience in newspapers and will surely find the business as difficult as McClatchy did.
Because of this newfangled internet machine your local newspaper no longer has the monopoly it once enjoyed on stock market listings and baseball standings and astrological forecasts and comic strips, and one can easily and inexpensively acquire the national and international news from such a wide range of choices you’ll be able to find one that only tells you what to hear. Worse yet, the internet has robbed newspapers of the classified advertising that used to be a lucrative revenue stream, and by now the internet knows enough about you that the big advertisers prefer to pay for ads that target the most likely customers. The business model that sustained American newspapers for centuries is suddenly obsolete.
This has resulted in severe downsizing at pretty much every newspaper in America, which has diminished the quality of the product even as its prices have steeply increased, and that naturally perpetuate and accelerates the industry’s decline. The mid-sized daily where we once toiled had about 150 newsroom employees when we started there, which wasn’t nearly enough to keep up with a mid-sized city such as Wichita, and these days they have about a dozen people on the job. They’re doing the best they can to be a watchdog, and have done some very fine work lately covering all the shenanigans that City Hall and County Hall are up to, but they’re getting most of their state news from the Kansas City Star, which used to be the rival they once competed with for statewide scoops, and most people aren’t willing to shell out a full dollar for local news, especially when the local sports news is a day old because the papers are being printed in Kansas City.
Since 2006 McClatchy’s advertising revenue fell by 80 percent and its print circulation dropped 58.6 percent, which is obviously the dire sort of thing that lands a company in bankruptcy court, and according to the Brookings Institute more than 2,000 newspapers have gone out of business in the last 15 years. There are cities larger than Wichita that don’t have a daily newspaper, here in Wichita the paper only comes out six days a week, and no one should think that it can’t happen where they are.
Some will cheer the demise of the “fake news” “enemies of the people” that told them so many things they didn’t want to hear, but they’ll miss it when its gone. City halls and county halls and state legislatures around the country will feel emboldened to pursue their shenanigans without a watchdog keeping an eye on them. The heroic exploits of your best local high school and collegiate athletes will go unsung, and the sorts of funny and touching human interest stories we used to write and the great photographs that went with them will go unpublished. The births and deaths of your fellow citizens and all sorts of public events will receive less notice, and your community will be poorer as a result.
There’s still a chance those newsrooms will somehow survive on the internet, but so far they haven’t figured out how to do that, as people don’t like to pay for content and advertisers are targeting very small markets among even a big-sized paper’s declining readership. The Salt Lake Tribune has recently been recognized as a nonprofit organization, and we expect other papers to follow, and several foundations have been funding journalism, which helps but also raises question about the foundations’ objectivity. For now its hard to find the proverbial silver lining on the metaphorical clouds that hang over the newspaper business.
There must be some civic-minded demand for local news though, and we’ll hope that the ingenious capitalist system will figure out some way to profitably supply the public. In any case, we’ll hope to at least get our pension for all the years of wretchedly ink-stained work we put in on a noble profession.

— Bud Norman

An Almost Perfect Evening at the Ballpark

Tuesday provided us an almost perfect evening of Americana at the elegantly aging old Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, just across the swelling Arkansas River from downtown Wichita.

The temperature was appropriately but not excessively high as the Sioux Falls Canaries took a worrisome lead at the top of the first, but as the Wichita Wingnuts kept within striking distance over the subsequent innings a picturesque prairie sunset descended upon the hallowed field and the clean Kansas air achieved an optimum warmth. We enjoyed hearing the familiar corny advertising promos that accompany almost every possible play of minor league baseball as we sat in the sun-blinding smoking section with a couple of stogie-loving pals, chatted amiably with a couple of late-arriving friends about some of the city’s more notorious crime stories of the past few decades in between our game commentary, and amused ourselves by annoying the more stridently liberal of the two with our speculation that a black baserunner on the opposing team was a threat to steal second. At the top of the eighth we overhead a young mother consoling her adorably chubby and mitt-wearing daughter that one doesn’t get to take home a foul ball every game, and in the bottom of the inning a sharply hit foul bonked off the head of our liberal friend’s sister and landed softly in the hands of that very girl. Better yet, the hometown team took its first lead, and the only one it needed, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
The combined talents of Norman Rockwell and George M. Cohan could not have concocted a more satisfyingly old-fashioned American night, and with the free admission coupon we obtained from a local convenience store chain it was a bargain despite the over-priced beer, but it was made infuriatingly imperfect from the moment we had to pass through a wand-weilding security guard to gain admittance. Security at the elegantly aging old Lawrence-Dumont Stadium isn’t so intrusive and insulting as what the jet set routinely endures, but it entails a pat on the pants pockets and is annoying enough to spoil the illusion that we’re still living in the old America of the brave and free.
There’s no telling why such measures are thought necessary by the ballpark’s otherwise astute management. Even the most unambitious jihadist is unlikely to bomb an elegantly aging old ballpark where an unaffiliated double-A team called the Wingnuts is battling a team called the Canaries, and even the most culturally savvy of them would be unlikely to realize what a pregnantly symbolic target it would be. If those heavily-armed and rather ferocious-looking guards are concerned that a unmedicated nutcase is going to start abusing his concealed-carry permit they should spend some time in the stands, where the folks are both reassuringly normal by modern standards and yet somehow still well-equipped to take care of things in any contingency even by old-fashioned standards. The Wichita Wingnuts draw their rather modest crowds mostly from the inelegantly aging white working class near-westside neighborhood that abuts the ballpark, an area that was once one of the Wild West’s wildest townships, and it’s an intriguing mix of family values and biker tattoos that we sit among with complete confidence that they won’t attempt mass murder nor put up with any such nonsense.
Perhaps the Wingnuts’ management is following the lead of the far more fabled and lucrative Wichita State University Wheatshockers basketball squad, which subjects its more aged and well-heeled and less likely to defend themselves fans to the same inexplicable scrutiny, Anything governmental around here is even nosier, and more behavior-altering. Our country boy Pop once inculcated in us the habit of carrying a Swiss Army knife, but we long ago abandoned that useful trait because of the Osama Bin Laden-like treatment we got from those guards at the city and county halls and federal courtrooms we were required by our profession to cover. Sometimes we find ourselves in need of the scissors or corkscrews that those devices put at our disposal, and we long for a bygone era.
Wingnuts games always draw a lot of cute young all-American kids, usually accompanied by parents who look as if they would otherwise be in one of the nearby dives, and it does our heart good to see them playing catch in between innings by the beer stand as we head off to a post-game beer with our pal at a local dive. Satchel Paige and Ron Guidry and Arky Vaughn and the all-steroid outfield of Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, and Pete Incaviglia once played in that ballpark, and we like to think those urchins are feeling some connection to those happier days. We think it would be good if they could take their own kids to a ballgame some day, and to walk in unmolested by the irrational fears that pervaded their childhoods, sure in the good intentions of their fellow Americans.

— Bud Norman