Thursday, February 26, 2009

Newspapers in Peril

The San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer are all among newspapers teetering on the brink of collapse. They are also papers in a twon with competing dailies. Today, another newspaper from a two-paper town announced it will close - tomorrow. Denver's Rocky Mountain News is shutting its doors.

This comes on the heels of this shiny new downtown office building the Denver Newspaper Agency (the entity that publishes both the Denver Post and the News in a joint operating agreement) built just a couple of years ago.

Does this portend the demise of dailies in one-paper towns? I sure hope not, I don't think we, as a democratic society, can afford for that to happen. Remember, the free market does not provide an efficient level of public goods and, to me, the media's watchdog role is a public good.

While I am talking about newspapers, is it now a common thing for newspapers to employ their own working reporters as columnists? I was surprised to see Anna Griffin's byline recently as I thought she had moved to being a full time columnist for The Oregonian. I prefer her as a reporter as I find her columns to be strange and incoherent - as if she is trying to rant like a columnist, but it does not come naturally. Anyway, I think it is dangerous for the reputation of a newspaper to have the same person reporting and opinionating on the news.


elindsey said...

Let me first state that I am not a supporter of the one newspaper town as an ideal. But in this media day-and-age, we are far from ideal. And having worked as a city government reporter for the Salinas Californian when it was a two newspaper town (Gannett's Californian vs. Knight Ridder's Monterey County Herald), I actually felt that the newspaper competition was BAD for business. In a 150,000 person city there were two newspaper reporters on the city government beat, two covering the hospital, two covering cops, two covering ag...and basically NO other reporters. Now, if you extrapolate that in a single-newspaper town you have the same number of subscribers, you could probably employ the same number of reporters (if not more because of the economies of scale w/r/t printing presses, circulation, etc)...all of a sudden you can have a transportation reporter and a religion reporter and all sorts of other things. It may be the nature of the media world we live in, where TV news and radio and online reporters all provide the "competition" to the MSM, but to me it seemed unnecessary to have two reporters covering every city hall meeting, when one could have been out pounding the pavement finding other stories.

Patrick Emerson said...

I agree that two papers are not necessary, in fact I often wondered whether competition forced the Denver Post and RM News too far into the realm of Yellow journalism. What I was trying to say is that so far the newspaper failures or pending failures still leave the towns with one daily, which to me is sufficient, but that it might not be long before there are failures at newspapers that are the only daily for lagre cities. I dread the day the Oregonian has to call it quits for example.

But it does raise an interesting question, how big does a city have to be to need a daily paper to perform the watchdog role? Would the Corvallis Gazette Times folding be a problem? Eugene Resister-Guard? I don't know.

I also don't know how many reporters are out there in Oregon from other media, Radio, weeklies, magazines, on-line media? My assumption is very few. And, as you mention, how many should there be? Is one reporter sniffing around city hall adequate, two? Lots of intersting questions for a budding news-economist...anyone?

As an aside, I once wrote a paper on corruption and developing countries. But corruption was an endogenous variable in a regression, so I (in essence) proxied for corruption with a measure of the extent and freedom of the press. Worked very well (they are highly correlated). So I am a big believer in the incentives for corruption in government and the power of a free press.

John Dingler said...

Belo bought The Press-Enterprise newspaper, Riverside's (CA) only major newspaper in 2006(?). The Press made a one million in profit in 2007, built a four story structure about a year ago, could not afford to raze the old bldg., raised the daily from 25 to 50 cents, and then did a voluntary "staff reduction" in approx.

July 2008, an involuntary staff reduction in October of the same year, and is likely to do another involuntary in 2009 in order to eliminate all benefited staff, excluding IT staff. It has asked its Class A drivers to reduce their hourly wage to 14/hr. Its hiring freeze has produced a shortage of A drivers who have to double as interdepartmental mail delivery carriers.

John Dingler said...

Oh, and the Press has also resorted to renting out the two upper stories of the four story structure to other businesses.