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