Newspapers’ Civil Wars

Newspapers in Los Angeles, like newspapers in most other large U.S. cities, once measured themselves against their competition. Getting a “scoop” was the journalistic equivalent of a knockout in boxing. And news – at least within the newsroom – was sport as much as anything else. Being first mattered as much as being right, and if you couldn’t be sure of the latter then the former would almost always suffice.

Newspapers were at war with each other. They fought with massive presses and ink barrels. They enlisted young recruits hungry for battle and invested time and resources to get to the top and then stay there.

Today, for the most part, the competition wars are over. Cities like Los Angeles are now one-newspaper towns. Today newspapers fight not for supremacy, but for survival. They are still at war – but this time, the fighting is internal.

Individual newspapers are embroiled in their own civil wars, pitting reporters against management and shareholders against owners. The community is caught in perpetual crossfire from drive-by decision making such as staff reductions, content overhauls and consolidation. Newspapers are killing themselves and they don’t seem to care if they take the rest of us down with them.

Technology is part of the equation – we are living through unprecedented change and we must expect and even welcome transition, especially when it comes to us via transformation and a public’s desire for participation. But for newspapers to blame technology for all their problems is like blaming cell phones for causing you to rear-end someone on the freeway. The issue is not with the technology but with how you choose to use it, and in this regard newspapers, with some notable exceptions like the Washington Post and the Houston Chronicle, have failed.

I’m all for private local ownership, especially here in Southern California, where the Los Angeles Times has become a symbol of all that’s wrong with the newspaper business – editors fighting with owners (and losing), staff fighting with editors and an online presence with neither strategy nor soul. But I’m not sure private local ownership alone will stem the tide of red ink. What the Times needs is competition, not from the Internet or television, but from other local newspapers.

This, of course, will likely never happen. The current civil war at the Los Angeles Times is mere denouement to a Newspaper Age that is all but over.  Newspapers, I believe, will always be with us in some form, but there will not be any new print-on-paper publications launching, at least in the United States. Reporters would be crazy to work for them and investors would be even crazier to fund them.

So instead, we are left with countless civil wars that stand to leave communities and the papers that serve them in shards. I used to read the Times as if I were looking out a window to the world – now, I am looking at a ghost, a casualty from self-inflicted wounds, and a painful harbinger of what is yet to come.

4 thoughts on “Newspapers’ Civil Wars

  1. As a former print reporter, I too lament the demise of two-paper towns and the excellence that competition produced. Mark Cuban has an interesting post today at about how local media can survive — not through great content, however — but by leveraging their sales force and fully embacing new media advertising opportunties.

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