If you've been following the troubles at America's great newspapers, you may have noticed eerie parallels to that other sad story, the decline of Detroit's automakers. As related by the business media, the two tales have the same tragic arc: a 20th-century industry that once seemed invincible finds itself on the ropes, humbled by a changing market it doesn't understand, forced into drastic job cuts and other indignities.
One day last week, the lead story on The Wall Street Journal's front page was about a roiling dispute over the future of the Los Angeles Times, which is owned by Tribune. Headlined "Tribune Faces Pressure to Sell Los Angeles Paper," the story noted, among other unhappy details, that as of last spring the Times' circulation was down 5.4 percent compared with a year earlier, confirming a now-familiar pattern.
On the same day, the front of The New York Times Business section reported that when Ford Motor recently announced 44,000 new job cuts, it "acknowledged that it would not make a profit in North America until 2009 at the earliest."
Shocking stuff. Two pillars of civilization, newspapers and cars, find themselves together at death's door, victims of cruel modernity. Who would have ever thunk it possible?
Only problem is, it's not entirely true. Go back to the passage about the "struggling" Los Angeles paper, and you stumble on a curious fact: "The Times currently enjoys a profit margin of about 20 percent, lower than that of its parent's flagship Chicago Tribune but higher than many metro papers."
A 20 percent margin—even higher at the Chicago paper!—is, by the standards of any other industry, simply awesome. But as any savvy observer of newspapers' travails will tell you, it's not good enough for Wall Street. Stock prices are set not just on a company's current earnings but also on its prospects for growth, and newspapers' days as cash cows are widely assumed to be numbered.
Funny then, isn't it, to read that several billionaires have been seen circling the Los Angeles paper and licking their lips. The Journal reported that SunAmerica founder Eli Broad and supermarket mogul Ronald W. Burkle "recently sat down with representatives of the Chandler family [Tribune's largest shareholder] and their investment bankers to discuss how they might structure a deal to purchase the Times from Tribune." Entertainment titan David Geffen made a separate, all-cash offer. Meanwhile, civic leaders in Los Angeles have been meeting, with the hope of getting the paper back under local ownership.
All of which gives the lie to the widespread belief that newspapers 1) are failing, undesirable businesses, and 2) no longer play a crucial role in knitting communities together. Those billionaires and civic leaders seem to be operating on a different set of assumptions. What do they know that we don't?
Newspapers and cars may well be headed for the same awful fate. Still, it's very strange math that allows a business with zero profits to be discussed in the same tones as one with 20 percent margins.
It isn't hard to see why media outlets cover the newspaper industry in such dark, somebody-save-them tones. American newspapers are the most serious, trustworthy media outlets on the planet, and journalists are in a panic that they might disappear. But by playing the alarmist, portraying newspapers as pathetic weaklings in need of a savior, we reinforce the notion—still purely speculative—that the medium has no future, and perhaps increase the chances that it will come true. If even media people say newspapers are doomed, why bother subscribing or visiting their Web sites?
Of course, cars aren't dying, either. While Ford and General Motors flounder, Toyota is on top of the world-because it stayed alive to the marketplace and figured out what consumers want. Just as there will always be a market for well-designed cars, there will always be one for reliable, well-crafted, engaging news about the world we live in.
Right now there is no Toyota of journalism, nobody who has totally figured out the new game and is minting money at it. But there are lots of candidates, including the newspapers themselves. They'll never get there if we let them think of themselves as charity cases.