It’s an old, old story and somehow the blogs have stumbled onto it in the last few days and made it their own. US newspaper circulation is going down. O’Reilly, Powers, and others are worrying the issue right now in the face of trouble at the Chron.
Over the last thirty years, as one-by-one the great columnists that made the San Francisco Chronicle readable died off — Ralph Gleason, Charles McCabe, Stanton DelaPlane, Herb Caen, Art Hoppe and most recently Phil Elwood — other fine writers came to fill in the space those luminaries had left behind. Jon Carroll and Mark Morford, two of my favorites, had an affinity for web publishing from the beginning. The Chron has been a great vehicle for them and for others like Joel Selvin and Rob Morse.
Seven years ago SF Gate carried this notice:
On November 22, 2000, the newspaper landscape in San Francisco shifted dramatically, and SF Gate changed with it.
On that date, the transfer of the San Francisco Examiner from Hearst Corp. to ExIn Inc. was completed. At the same time, the existing staffs of the Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle merged to produce an expanded Chronicle, owned by Hearst Corp.
For SF Gate readers, things changed as well.
For the past five years, many of you may have used SF Gate to read the online versions of stories and archives from both the Chronicle and the Examiner. As of November 22, the daily editions of the Examiner are no longer be available [sic] on SF Gate. Content from the new Examiner will be available at examiner.com, which is also owned and operated by ExIn Inc.
In 2004, the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) published a comprehensive review of the “Newspaper Audience.” To no one’s surprise (the trend had been obvious for decades as major dailies folded into each other in metropolitan markets) newspaper circulation and the absolute number of daily papers has been on a slow decline for a long time. The sententious garbage Gillmor spews here, and the tedious over-reaching Tom Swift boy capitalist approach that Winer recommends perfectly miss the point.
A back of the envelope calculation tells me that news stand revenues for the 55 million papers sold every day in the United States (and more than that on Sundays) amount to maybe 10 billion dollars. Advertising revenue? Anybody’s guess. I’m sure the numbers are out there and I’m sure they far exceed the subscription and news stand income. Dead tree journalism today is far from moribund, and the issues the San Francisco market faces aren’t much different from what they faced ten years ago when the SF Gate started cranking up, or seven years ago when the Examiner merged with the Chron. The issue then, the issue nobody’s talking about in the tempest in a teapot that Gillmor stirred up is the narrowing of editorial voices that a community faces when two papers merge to one and then that single paper streamlines operations and lays off staff.
And it is precisely there that independent web publishing voices have an opportunity to serve their community and add balance to public discussion of important issues.
One of the things about Gillmor’s slant that I find annoying is his framing of a nuanced disagreement with David Lazarus as a “debate.” Phooie on debate. As usual, reading the informed commentary (including Gillmor’s) at Shelley Powers’, I’ve been exposed to a discussion of a number of issues that bear directly on just where our concern should be focussed. The most important in my opinion is the matter of who will fund the international and broad regional reportage of issues of concern to all but larger than one community can underwrite? Associated Press, Reuters, and Scripps Howard and the larger chains are doing this today, while the TV networks have fallen victim to narrow time slots and reduced budgets. David Lazarus observes,
The harsh reality, though, is that most newspaper Web sites account for only about 5 percent of total revenue. That means a news organization that relies primarily on the Internet couldn’t possibly support a newsroom as large or resourceful as what the paid-for print product allows.
And that means this glorious new paradigm of content that’s not worth paying for would allow news organizations to be capable of doing only a fraction of the investigative and watchdog work they currently perform.
Lazarus is right to worry about the business model that will fund professional reportage. Gillmor is right to focus that concern on regional, national, and international news, since the community will take care of itself. So where’s the beef? There is no beef. This is a story about a couple of web publishing businessmen — self identified “bloggers” — beating some publicity out of the bushes by contriving to disagree with a fellow who didn’t say what they said he said about a story that is so old it pre-dates the ARPAnet. Unethical on their part perhaps, mixing the publicist’s work with the reporter’s, but hardly surprising given the evangelistic nature of the usual suspects.
UPDATE and CORRECTION — the more interesting comment thread on this where Shelley, Seth, Dan, and others are sharing opinions I found most valuable is here at Dan’s WebPub.
[tags]trouble at the chronicle, big whoop, Dan Gillmor, Shelley Powers, David Lazarus, SF Gate, Mark Morford, Phil Elwood, Charles McCabe[/tags]