No news is bad news


For Westerners interested in the news, one of the biggest stories lately is the crisis in the news industry itself. A few highlights:

  •  Washington state's second-largest newspaper, the 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer, was put up for sale Jan. 9. Its owner -- Hearst Corp., a privately held chain based in New York -- says that unless a buyer is found by early March, the P-I will become an online-only operation run by a much smaller staff, or it'll be shut down altogether. Potential buyers, beware: The P-I hasn't made a profit in the last eight years.
  •  Colorado's second-largest newspaper, the 149-year-old Rocky Mountain News, was put up for sale Dec. 4. Its owner, the Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps chain, vows to shut it down unless a buyer is found quickly.
  • Arizona's 139-year-old Tucson Citizen went on the market Jan. 19, and its owner, the Virginia-based Gannett chain, will shut it down March 21 unless a buyer is found -- which appears unlikely.

"I've never seen a situation as bleak as it appears … today," University of Wyoming journalism professor George Gladney told Wyoming Public Radio. He was talking about the whole industry and, in particular, Wyoming's biggest daily, the Casper Star-Tribune. The Star-Trib laid off 15 staffers Jan. 14, including environment-beat reporter Chris Merrill. Merrill predicted, "It's going to drop the quality of (the) coverage."

Most daily papers in the West are shrinking -- and running in the red. The crisis spreads nationwide, but the impacts feel worse in our region, perhaps because the decisions are often made by big companies headquartered elsewhere. Dramatic examples include the San Francisco Chronicle -- another Hearst property -- which has cut editorial staff from 590 to 260 in the last seven years. The Chronicle reportedly lost $75 million last year.

The causes are numerous. Ambitious investors have consolidated ownership of the dailies in big chains through mergers and acquisitions, often borrowing huge amounts of money to pull it off. They're squeezing newsrooms to extract profits and make loan payments. Meanwhile, paid circulation has generally declined, as readers increasingly get news online for free. And now the global economic meltdown has reduced ad revenue.

The Iowa-based Lee chain, which owns more than a dozen Western dailies including the Casper Star-Tribune, is "saddled with debt after its $1.4 billion purchase of Pulitzer Media Group in 2005," reports Wyoming Public Radio. The value of Lee's stock has plunged from $30 a share two years ago to less than 40 cents, and the company may go bankrupt.

Colorado's biggest paper, the Denver Post, "is precarious," reports the Rocky Mountain News. The Post's owner -- the privately held MediaNews Group, whose tremendous appetite includes the acquisition of the Salt Lake Tribune and many other Western dailies -- is "struggling under the weight of $1 billion of debt."

The dailies have been the cornerstone of the news-gathering system. They employ far more journalists than other news operations in their communities. Many different kinds of journalists -- including national magazine and broadcast reporters -- rely on them to discover the basics of what's going on.

Obviously, the industry is going through a transformation. Some journalists are trying to shift to nonprofit operations -- a path blazed by a few pioneers, including High Country News, which began as a nonprofit newspaper about 40 years ago. Some are setting up online-only news operations. Those experiments -- which include Seattle's and -- show promise. But there are many uncertainties about where their revenue will come from, and so far, they employ only a handful of journalists.

"I have watched the industry decline with both alarm and sadness," Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels told the P-I. "To become involved in their community, residents need to be informed. No one does that better than a metropolitan daily."

Western journalism's situation now resembles the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. That disaster, with its attendant aftershocks and fires, leveled much of the city and likely killed over a thousand people. A new San Francisco, with earthquake-resistant buildings, arose from the ruins. But the rebirth was neither quick nor easy. And the metaphor would not be complete without noting that the West is littered with the shells of other communities that suffered disasters and did not recover -- ghost towns.

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