detroit signals death of the old newspaper, and maybe journalism altogether

The Detroit News and Free Press today announced today that, in addition to letting go up to 9% of their workforce, they would be cutting home delivery to three days a week. Given the rising cost of newsprint, dwindling ad sales, and the fact that more people are getting their news online, it isn’t surprising that they’re being forced to make big changes. I don’t think, however, that this is going to stop with Detroit. I just think we’re the first media market forced to make the move. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if other papers around the country began following suit, delivering only their Thursday, Friday and Sunday papers. And I don’t think we’ve reached the bottom yet in Detroit either. I suspect, within the next year, we’ll hear that the Detroit papers have stopped printing Monday through Wednesday altogether — not even having copies available in boxes and on newsstands… And I guess those of us either without a computer, or unable to pay the $20 or so a month for an internet connection, will just be shit out of luck.

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  1. mark
    Posted December 16, 2008 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t mention it in this post, as we’ve discussed it elsewhere, but there’s a very real difference between real journalism and what is found online for free at sites like mine. Our society depends on a free, vigorous local press, and it concerns me that we’re allowing what we have to wither and die. The New York Times and the Washington Post, as good as they are, don’t cut it when it comes to local stuff. And neither do blogs. We need people who can hunt down our corrupt officials and ask them difficult questions. We need real journalists. And this recent development in Detroit doesn’t bode well for that.

  2. Posted December 17, 2008 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    I heard about this, and my first reaction was “so what, I prefer my news online anyway” but you raise such a good point about not everyone being fortunate enough to have a computer or internet access. And will the freep or detnews be profitable enough to run strictly online? They’re going to have to get creative with advertising opportunities, which to me isn’t as effective online as it is in print. What a mess. More jobs will be lost too, which is sad.

  3. Posted December 17, 2008 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    @mark: On the other hand, there are free online-only operations that are (or have attainable aspirations of being) on par with or better than some local newspapers. The Ann Arbor Chronicle comes immediately to my mind, but I’m sure I could think of others.

  4. Curt Waugh
    Posted December 17, 2008 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    mark, while your desire for good local coverage is noble, the idea that the only way to get it is through “a free, vigorous local press” is, in my opinion, old fashioned. To someone like me, it’s like saying that the only way to build a good radio is with vacuum tubes.

    The future is all about aggregation. The news filters of trusted individuals (like, say, William Randolph Hearst and Rupert Murdoch — great fellas) is quickly being pushed aside by tools that are monitoring group behavior as a whole (think Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Reddit and now cell phones and video, photo and audio indexing). While each of these things might seem frivolous or like “something for the kids”, taken as a whole, they signal the key change that has taken place from the old days of the print-only world.

    It will take some time for all of this to shake out and become more powerful. The entire world of aggregation is in its infancy. But it will get there. Google is barely more than 10 years old. Just a baby, really. Most of us have only had e-mail for about 15 years or so, 20 tops.

    How then, you might ask, does aggregation replace investigative reporting? It doesn’t completely. But much the same way that Google searches are telling us more about flu outbreaks than the CDC or NIH can keep up with. Their old methods of record keeping and surveying are being eclipsed in real-time by the aggregation of group behavior on a massive scale. For further analysis, we can then look to trusted individuals to tell us more.

    Here’s the important part: The new will not REPLACE the old, it will add to it. The world isn’t about OR, it’s about AND. Just because print is dying doesn’t mean that journalism is. It’s just changing. Don’t lament the loss of something that hasn’t really been lost. Folks miss their horses, too, but we seem to be able to get around better than ever. Does that mean that horses are bad? No. Does that mean that horses disappeared? Of course not. Lots of folks have horses. But now that we have cars and trains and planes, so many more people can afford to go so many more places. And big cities don’t stink like they used to. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just progress.

  5. Posted December 17, 2008 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Wow – excellent comment CW.

  6. Buzz Kill
    Posted December 17, 2008 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    And what exactly are all of these people aggregating if not the work of real, serious journalists? I like the idea that people-powered journalism can pick up the slack, but I don’t see it happening. Call the Governor now and ask for an interview telling them that you’re a blogger. Doesn’t work so well, does it? We need professional journalists and we need to find a way to pay them a living wage now that the newspaper is disappearing.

  7. Curt Waugh
    Posted December 17, 2008 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Buzz, let me give you one possible example of how aggregation can supplement journalism. Please note that I did not advocate the complete replacement of journalists. The idea that newsroom after newsroom will be stuffed to the gills with these folks is gone, but not all journalists will be gone. There will always be a need to continue to pay the best ones. (Ergo, we don’t really need to “find a way” to pay them. It will happen anyway.)

    Let’s take local government budgets as an example of something on which journalists might report. Let’s say we want to know how our revenue streams compare to others. Should we tax more? Less? Change the mix of sources? These are valid questions for the general public. Our desire as a population is to find the best practice and emulate it. Why re-invent the wheel, right?

    In the past, a journalist would head down to city hall, gather some data, call some folks, make some more visits, blah, blah, blah. It might take weeks to get a good analysis of our city’s budget. It will also cost a lot of money and the results might be dodgy. And if we don’t happen to trust our local journalist, are we going to trust his/her story?

    Now, take a more modern approach. By law, all government budgets must be made public. They are published somewhere. Often, they’re published on the web. You can imagine a creative hacker or two who might be able to glean that information from the web and publish it into some sort of report that shows how your city compares to everybody else as a whole or specific other cities. In doing so, they have replaced the work of thousands of investigative journalists who have done this by hand in each of these cities individually.

    So, here we sit with all this good data. We just replaced thousands of hours with hundreds or tens. Huge cost savings. We have better data than ever as everything was retrieved in real time from trusted sources. But we still need somebody to evaluate the meaning of these numbers. Evaluation is a purely human exercise. We can’t completely replace it with machines. At some point, we still must choose what kind of city we’re going to be. So, we can never get rid of the people.

    We also don’t print this stuff on paper because that’s wasteful and expensive. mark lamented people who can’t afford $20 per month for the internet. The last time I checked, you can only get about one paper per month for that money. With the internet, you pretty much get them all (and all the magazines and all the blog and… and… and…). We need to be careful about defining change as loss. This isn’t loss. We have so much more good information than we ever had before. It’s just that the delivery mechanism is different.

  8. Posted December 17, 2008 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    That’s ok. Most people just read the sports pages anyway.

  9. Brackache
    Posted December 17, 2008 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    The Detroit News is too big to fail. If it goes under, children will be thrown out into the cold right before Christmas.

    I propose, therefore, that the United States government write a 1 billion dollar check to the Detroit News, and write on the bottom of it “payable by the readership of mark maynard’s blog.” It’s assumed that by our electing them to office that we’ve given them authority to do this.

    But this won’t be some free hand-out — oh no! The President will appoint a “Detroit News Czar” who will have complete editorial control of the Detroit News. This is a good idea because Government appointed officials are smarter and more honest than business people… such as journalists.

    If you disagree with any part of this plan, you want children to freeze to death right before Christmas.

  10. Mark H.
    Posted December 17, 2008 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    The newspaper industry is in a deeper, more protracted crisis than the auto industry. And Mark M. is right — for all the value of blogs and ‘new media,’ a democratic society really needs independent professional journalists to cover the news. The new media is great in so many ways, but the old media – think of the three TV networks each with a strong news division 40 years ago, plus the wire services and the local papers – had a unique and important (though hardly perfect) ability to focus public attention on….news of the day. There was less spin then, more common knowledge, less fragmentation of the population by what sub-populations were interested in following closely. Without the old media i doubt that either the Vietnam war or the civil rights movement or feminist revolt would have ever become national news stroies that everyone who was paying attention knew about. Nothing or nearly noting is like that now. You can read online all day now and still know noting of Gitmo or the credit crisis or the Afgan war, depending on what your interests are. Aggregation is a powerful tool, but without editors and journalists, it is just a means of market segmentation – not a means for a real center of public concern.

  11. Dirtgrain
    Posted December 17, 2008 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Brackache, you have a knack for satire.

    On this issue, I’m not sure a Taoist stance will be optimal. Our press = access. Even with the corruption by corporations, there is still a degree of access and the power to demand that certain issues be addressed. Politicians so often hate the press; this is a good sign that the press, as it is, is important–it does check politicians to some degree.

    That said, conglomeration of the media has been a bad thing (corrupting influences, especially). Maybe it will be a good thing for the press behemoths to fragment or disintegrate, hopefully with more localized and less corruptible entities taking their places. Oh crap, but what if a bunch of Bill O’Reilly’s take the place of real reporters? I keep thinking of that crappy movie Idiotocracy.

  12. Jill
    Posted December 17, 2008 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    This convo keeps making me think of a recent talk at U of M Law school.

  13. Ol' E Cross
    Posted December 18, 2008 at 12:33 am | Permalink

    Is no one concerned about the collateral damage? Poor local TV news has been siphoning off stories from the print media for decades. (“The Detroit Free Press is reporting that Mayor Kilpatrick…we have footage of the Mayor walking to his SUV”)

    Surely, as compelling as it is, local TV can’t subsist entirely on stories of “Toxins may be lurking in your toilet.”

    Without a print feeder, may they actually have to commence their own investigating or will they wither with the death of their print paters?

    If I were working at local TV news and contemplating the death of print, I’d be sweating…

  14. lowtech
    Posted December 18, 2008 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    It is not always the $20/month cost that is limiting. I’m thinking about our many senior citizens who have absolutely no inclination to bring a computer into their lives, whether because of the cost of the computer or because of their sense of comfort or ability in using one. This will likely lead them to rely solely on shallow TV and radio news, which I think is a darned shame.

    As for myself, I read lots of news online, but I still want a real newspaper that I can grab on the way out the door and read anywhere I want. I simply do not want a computer present in every aspect of my life.

  15. Posted December 18, 2008 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    this whole decision reminds me of one of my beliefs that main courses are simply vehicles for condiments. that’s what people really want- and if that is indeed the case here then it makes sense to serve the people meals on three days so that they get the condiments they crave on thu/fri/sun.

  16. Curt Waugh
    Posted December 18, 2008 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Mark H, you’re being a Luddite.

    “…think of the three TV networks each with a strong news division 40 years ago…”

    “…had>/b> a unique and important…”

    “Nothing or nearly noting is like that now.”

    You seem to have a somewhat romantic view of the past. We were in Viet Nam for YEARS before the protests started. Thanks to new media, protests about Iraq started before we were there. My, how short our memories are. Maybe you should ask some people of color what they think of the past and how they were portrayed by your good and powerful major networks. “Amos ‘n’ Andy” anyone?

    And this statement is just silly:

    “You can read online all day now and still know noting of Gitmo or the credit crisis or the Afgan war…”

    The online community are the only ones who are beating the drum of these issues. What sites are you visiting? Maybe you just need to lock into some better sources.

  17. Curt Waugh
    Posted December 18, 2008 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Sorry about the all-caps. I wasn’t yelling. I just fat-fingered some HTML when I was in a hurry. *sigh*

  18. kjc
    Posted December 18, 2008 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    I think there are lots of nuanced positions between Curt’s position and “Luddite”. In any case, I agree with Mark H.

  19. Terry
    Posted December 18, 2008 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    At the place where I work there was a guy from the local newspaper trying to drum up subscriptions by giving away free copies. I’d say at least half of the people he offered a free paper to said ‘no thanks’. You know your business is in trouble when you have trouble even giving it away.

  20. ypsifixit
    Posted December 18, 2008 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    Longtime lurker, first-time commenter …

    I think OEC makes a very interesting point. I work at a newspaper now, but I originally studied to go into TV journalism. Then when I had my internship in the newsroom at a Detroit station, I found out they begin each day by collecting stuff from the newspaper. They had filing cabinets jammed with newspaper clippings. A story would get its own folder and the clip would go into it, and every time a paper wrote a follow-up story, it would also get clipped and put in the folder, so the reporter doing the TV story would have “reference material.”

    The TV newsroom set its entire agenda every day from whatever was in the newspapers. This was 1991, but judging by what’s on TV these days, it’s probably still much the same.

    Local radio does the same thing. Every morning when I’m driving to work, I hear the radio news guy reading the stories I edited at the newspaper the day before.

    So the print people provide all the ideas and do all the legwork for the local TV and radio reporters. When they’re gone, what will TV and radio newsrooms do?

    The smart thing would be for them to hire people of their own to dig up stories and information. But instead of doing the smart thing, I bet they’ll do the cheap thing: Steal from Web sites and blogs.

    As the newspapers get winnowed out, be prepared to hear the broadcasters saying things like: “According to Mark Maynard at …”

  21. Brackache
    Posted December 18, 2008 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Save the telegraph operators!

  22. Mark H.
    Posted December 18, 2008 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Curt W. — Luddites were against those technological changes that (in their lives as factory workers) was undercutting their ability to make a living. They were not against all change in technology, and neither am I. Luddite should not be a term of disparagement – to use it as such is to trivialize the struggles of a group of workers for economic justice, and to unknowingly apply the values of their oppressors to the present.

    As for racial stereotypes — gosh do you really think the online environment is free of that stuff? Or hadn’t you heard of the internet as a tool for neoNazi and Klan recruitment and spreading of their filth? you paint all old media as bad, all new as good, overlooking the fact that each has/had their unique features.

    Curt you ridicule my statement that “You can read online all day now and still know noting of Gitmo or the credit crisis or the Afgan war…” as just pure silly, and then offer the view that
    “The online community are the only ones who are beating the drum of these issues. What sites are you visiting? Maybe you just need to lock into some better sources.”
    -Curt, which of thousands of online communities do you mean? And where do you get the idea that i personally am lacking good info on the types of world news stories I mentioned? (My favorite blogs are Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, the History News Network, and Mark’s). That there’s lots of good info online hardly establishes that this info is seen by most online readers. I happen to read lots of great online and print sources (hey, i’m a historian, reading is a big part of my profession, i’m not bragging, I just do my job). Suggesting, or even somehow proving, that I may not be reading the right sources is entirely irrelevant to whether the public today has any common ground of information, and also irrelevant to whether online reading automatically produces a person well informed regarding the news of the day.

    Lots of Americans who think Iraq was behind 9-11, or think that the US is justly fighting a religious war against Muslims, read plenty of online sources — just not the same online sources you and I like, Curt. Still, they are online communities. Ditto for Second Amendment advocates’ online communities and stock car racing communities or online commercial sex sites, or rock star and movie star fan sites.

    You can read online all day and not get any real news, ….all depends on what you want to read.

    If we try to define reading online in a way that just includes us and our like-minded friends, we are engaging in an act of arrogance that
    blinds us to the incredible power of the internet. Not all of that power is for the good, either. To note that these are real concerns is hardly to be a Luddite. But let’s recall the Luddites and honor their struggles as worthy efforts to advance human dignity.

    It’s sheer fantasy to speak of a singular “online community”. The virtue of the internet – its multiplicity, its endless variety, how it permits so many people to create sites – is also related to a problem of democratic governance: How can a public that has so few common points of knowledge govern itself?

    Sorry to go on so long here. End of my lecture/rant. Sorry I didn’t have either the time to edit this rant myself, or a editor to do it for me.

  23. mark
    Posted December 19, 2008 at 12:01 am | Permalink

    Journalism is a noble profession. It’s a subject for another day, but I find it inexcusable that an institution as respected at the University of Michigan doesn’t teach it. We cannot allow it to just wither and die. Our Democracy depends on it.

  24. mark
    Posted December 19, 2008 at 12:09 am | Permalink

    I love the “save the telegraph operators” line. It has nothing at all to do with what we’re talking about, but I love it.

  25. Curt Waugh
    Posted December 19, 2008 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Mark H, you have a well-reasoned response to my comments. I have read them and I think you make some great points about what you seek from society.

    But the past will not come back. You can hope and wish and pray and sacrifice a goat, if need be. But the old days of newsroom style journalism are gone. There are a lot of folks who keep saying “we need to find a way to pay these people to keep doing what they do”. If there was a way, they would be earning that money right now. But they’re not. And they’re not going to.

    Rather than wish away for the past (newspapers, auto companies, the financial solvency of the U.S.), we need to concentrate on “what do we do now”. There is no turning back the clock.

    Oh, and in terms of the people who believe that Iraq was behind 911, I wonder from what particular TV station those people get their news. My guess it was that particular one started by a newspaper man, Rupert Murdoch. Thanks to assholes like him, young people do not and will not ever trust newspapers. Again, what do we do now?

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