The Death of Newspapers (a serial)

By Daniel Akst

Walter Pincus, a veteran newspaper guy (and therefore in my book eligible for beatification) has a long essay about how the many failings of these tragic beasts are leading them to extinction. He cites indifference to readers, excessive prize-seeking, government spin doctors, corporate ownership etc. If only they had foreseen the subprime crisis!

Unfortunately, the essay suffers from the self-importance it ascribes to its subject. The real problem is simply that readers and advertisers for various reasons prefer to use the Internet, which is showing no signs of being able to support the elaborate news-gathering operations once underwritten by print ads for women's clothing and used cars.

The truth is that it hardly matters what you put in newspapers these days, and their owners have cottoned to this fact. Good newspapers are losing readers and advertisers just as fast as bad ones, if not faster. I could easily argue that Pincus has it exactly backwards; the problem isn't that newspapers aren't good enough, it's that they aren't bad enough to thrive in a culture that won't pay for quality and finds voyeurism much more compelling than solid news and analysis.

But I don't really believe this. People are reading plenty, and they want news. They just intend to get it online, and we'll all have to adjust to this. As to who will pay for someone to cover City Hall, dig into corruption and in general find things out (as opposed to just pontificating on the Internet), that's what they used to call the $64,000 question, in the days when $64,000 was a lot of money. And everybody read the newspapers.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/05/the-death-of-newspapers-a-serial/17297/