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

La Commedia e Finita

The longstanding debate about President Barack Obama’s birthplace is now over, or at least so declares Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump. After more than five years of making public insinuations that Obama was born in Kenya and thus constitutionally ineligible to be president, Trump on Friday told his usual throng of adoring supporters and skeptical reporters that “President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period. Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.”
Trump’s 30-second-or-so comments came more than 20 minutes into a news conference that his campaign had promised would include a “major announcement” on the issue of Obama’s birthplace, during which time all the cable news networks had been snookered into airing a commercial for the fancy new Trump hotel down the street from the White House and some glowing testimonials from a group of decorated military veterans, and all his adoring supporters considered that a shrewd manipulation of the media. Many of the media even admitted as much, but we suspect those suckered and now all-the-more-skeptical reporters and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton were willing trade that 20 minutes of little-watched infomercial for a chance to spend much of the weekend reminding the public that Trump had for years peddled a crackpot conspiracy theory he now admits was bunk all along.
The Washington Post even headlined one of its many stories “For Democrats, a fresh chance to remind voters of Trump’s role in ‘birtherism,‘” and all the big papers and all those snookered cable news networks clearly reveled in re-telling the embarrassing tale. Although the “birther” theory about Obama’s Kenyan birth had been rattling around the far reaches of the internet going back to his run for the Senate, and was occasionally mentioned in the more mainstream press during his primary race against Clinton during his first presidential campaign, it didn’t gain wide currency until Trump started taking time off from his “Apprentice” reality show to champion the cause. In “tweets” and appearances on talk shows cited he noted how “many people are saying” that Obama was foreign-born, and that “credible sources” were insisting, and even that he had dispatched a team of crack investigators to Hawaii and that “they can’t believe what they’re finding,” and he also expressed his own suspicions, although he was always careful never to come out and say he’d reached any conclusion. Now that he acknowledges Obama was born in America, period, Trump probably should be embarrassed.
Trump being Trump, though, he was instead quite proud of himself for putting that distracting and needlessly media-created controversy to rest by forcing the president to release his birth certificate. “Hillary Clinton started it,” Trump proclaimed, “and I finished it.” Both claims were widely ridiculed over the weekend, probably with various degrees of effectiveness.
All the so-called “fact-checkers” have rated the claim that “Clinton started it” a lie, and from our pox-on-both-their-houses objectivity we’ll more or less agree. When the “birther” claims were being occasionally mentioned during that long-ago primary a low-level and unpaid Clinton campaign staffer was fired for touting the story to reporters, but we’d hate to hold a traditional Republican presidential campaign to such a high standard of accountability. More recently the McClatchy chain of newspapers, which bought out the chain of newspapers we once worked for and is now responsible for our pension, is reporting that the longtime Clinton family consigliere Sid “Vicious” Blumenthal was touting the story so convincingly that the chain even sent a couple of reporters to Kenya to check it out, and no one familiar with Blumenthal would put it past him, but it’s also plausible he did it on his own. In any case, Clinton herself never talked or “tweeted” about it, and it all seemed to go away after that low-level and unpaid staffer was fired, and it was certainly never brought up by her during the years she served as Obama’s Secretary of State.
None of those gleeful mainstream press stories mention it, but we’ll also add that Obama also bears some responsibility for the conspiracy theory. The publishers of best-selling and vastly overrated “Dreams From My Father” memoir claimed he was born in Kenya in their promotional materials, which Obama didn’t correct until well into his presidency, and his campaign emphasized his Madrassa education in Indonesia and his fond memories of the Muslim call to prayers and his paternal Kenyan roots and otherwise cosmopolitan background, and he did take his sweet time releasing his birth certificate, all sorts of educational and passport records remain unreleased to this day. The ensuing seven and more-than-a-half years of Obama foreign policy have only exacerbated suspicions about his philosophical if not legal status Americanism, and his sympathies for Islam if not his fully-fledged allegiance to the religion.
Rather than make those make those reasonable arguments about Obama’s foreign policy, though, Trump naturally preferred to question Obama’s legal status as an American and leave his supporters claims that Obama is a Muslim unchallenged. There are plenty of reasonable arguments to be made against any of the Clinton family, too, but rather than limiting himself to that ample supply of ammo he’s talked about how some people are talking the quite unproved claim that they offed Vince Foster. We suppose there were also arguments to be made against the presidential candidacy of Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, but Trump chose to draw attention to a preposterous National Enquirer story about how Cruz’s father was in on the John F. Kennedy assassination. In a bipartisan spirit he’s also embraced the Bush Lied, People Died theory of the Iraq War, made numerous appearances on the Alex Jones’ “InfoWars” show that long asserted the Sept. 11 terror attacks were an inside job, and suggested that everything from the recent Democratic primary to the upcoming general election is “rigged.”
Before Trump is allowed to get on with the business of making America great, the Democrats and their allies in the media are entitled note that he has a long history of peddling crackpot conspiracy theories, and that it is not a desirable trait in a president. Trump and his supporters are also entitled to note how very Clinton is, and from our pox-on-both-their-houses perch we won’t disagree with the most of it, but after this weekend they’ll likely be less credible in the effort. Even if Trump did finally put that crackpot conspiracy theory to rest, except for those corners of the internet that will continue to insist and insist that Trump is right about everything.

— Bud Norman