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The death of the newspaper factory 

Journalism has been a casualty, but as the dinosaurs die, new life forms will flourish

Keith Hempstead, a lawyer in Durham, N.C., has a good idea. He's suing his hometown newspaper, the Raleigh News & Observer, for breaking its contract with him. Hempstead argues that when he subscribed, the newspaper had a newsroom full of savvy journalists, and he anticipated robust coverage of events critical to him and his community.

But, as with newspapers across the nation, the News & Observer has had draconian cuts in its staff, especially among the journalists. So Hempstead says the paper committed a fraud, a bait and switch. Whatever the courts rule, Hempstead is absolutely right.

Here in Atlanta, we've been watching the thrashing and squirming at the AJC as it cut its once fine news organization from 590 journalists to 350. If you walk into the Varsity, order and pay for two hotdogs, and the counterman gives you one, while telling you, "It's the same as two," you'd scoff and squirt him with mustard. "I'm not that stupid," you'd say.

But the AJC and papers across the nation think you are exactly that stupid. They've perfected the bait and switch. And they think advertisers are even more gullible than readers – the publishers have gleefully jacked up advertising rates while slashing circulation.

The press lords offer convoluted arguments about how they're reorganizing the newsroom, eliminating sections, perfecting a Newspaper 2.0, blah blah blah. They say they have research – the AJC claims it talked to 3,500 people – that proves the publishers and editors are absolutely correct in every decision they're making. They don't show you that research, and they sure as hell don't put themselves in a public situation where their readers (I mean former readers) can voice their opinions and debate the people who are still pretending they're the gatekeepers of information.

And they never ever report on themselves. They issue and print their own spin. But unlike a few newspapers that courageously have had ombudsmen, the AJC and most of its brethren circle the computer terminals and fight off any attempt to examine them. The irony escapes them that they demand the right to dig into the most intimate details of people, governments and companies. As Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame has often observed, newspapers are the least transparent major institution in most cities. Certainly that's true in Atlanta.

Publishers' spin aside, I'm going to offer two reasons for the decline of daily newspapers.

First, a newspaper isn't about content, although we live in a content age. Newspapers are huge manufacturing plants. They kill forests and consume vast quantities of oil to deliver news that is already, in this digital age, dusty old history. The problem is that a paper like the AJC has hundreds of millions of dollars sunk into its manufacturing plant. If the paper's bosses really believed their own babble about the power of the Internet, they would have long ago hauled their presses out to sea and dumped them in the water for artificial reefs.

People want intelligent content. So faced with owning dinosaur factories with no sustainable economic base, the publishers do what? They kill the guys who produce the good content. Which ensures that even more readers become ex-readers. The AJC has lost about 40 percent of its subscribers since the mid-1990s, while the metro area has grown by well more than a million people.

A great journalism scholar, Philip Meyer of the University of North Carolina, in his 2004 book, The Vanishing Newspaper, has actually pegged the date when the last newspaper subscriber in America will cancel his subscription: Late in the first quarter of 2043.

Others have seen the end long before Meyer's book. In the mid-1980s, I covered Knight-Ridder Newspapers' experiment in an early form of Internetlike information, called Viewtron. K-R Chairman Jim Batten bluntly stated that with what he saw in the clunky Viewtron, it was going to spell the end for his beloved newspapers (which included the Macon Telegraph and the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer).

So what did Knight-Ridder do? It peed its corporate pants, slammed the door on Viewtron and tried to ignore the momentous discoveries of its own experiment.

And don't believe the claptrap flowing out of the AJC building, such as Publisher John Mellott's claim that 2.2 million people read the paper online each week. That's only true if you ignore context. A person in, say, Mumbai, India, who does a Google search on Martin Luther King, and clicks on one AJC story, is equivalent, under Mellott's accounting, with someone who thoroughly reads the paper each day.

The other reason for the slow, but certain death of American newspapers is their own greed. In 1972, the AJC's owner, Cox, ordered all its editors to endorse Richard Nixon. Cox's two rising star editors – at the Palm Beach Post and the Miami News – either quit or were fired. Those events were traumatic – but the backdrop was horrible. As the great media critic Ben Bagdikian would later expose, America's publishers had bartered their endorsement to Nixon in exchange for his administration dropping its opposition to Joint Operating Agreements, a monopolistic, anti-competitive scheme the publishers used to prop up a "second voice," thereby deterring real competition from coming into markets.

In a series of similar actions, newspapers have tried to gain monopoly status in their communities. The most recent was unrelenting lobbying and pressure on the Federal Communications Commission to drop its ban on joint newspaper-broadcast ownership in the same city.

The result of monopolies has been to leave most cities with one major daily newspaper. With no competition, as here in Atlanta, there is little motivation to invest in the product. The publishers can erode the quality of their publications with impunity.

But they fear what's over the horizon. The future of journalism is not with the giant dailies. I love them, but they're dying. The new journalism will have different models of ownership – nonprofits, for example. The forest-slaying, oil-guzzling newspaper factories will become memories.

And you, the smart reader, will be the winner.

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