Don't Kill the Messenger: Newspapers are Doomed

Last Updated Aug 28, 2008 1:51 AM EDT


For decades, some of the biggest celebrities in U.S. cities have been newspaper columnists. Herb Caen, for example, embodied San Francisco, or at least his slice of it, in a way that no one since he died in the late '90s has been able to replicate.

In most cities, there still are a cluster of columnists whose voices rise above the crowd, but they are a dying breed. In Chicago, over the past two decades, one of those voices has been that of Jay Mariotti, a star sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. While in Beijing covering the Olympics, however, Mariotti suddenly decided to resign, since sports journalism is now "a web site business." He reportedly has been in discussions with a number of web sites himself, no doubt including ESPN, where he already appears on the TV side.

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In Denmark, the transition from print to the web is further along for most newspapers than here in the U.S. All major Danish newspapers now project that their online revenue will exceed their print revenue within three years. (Note: Link is in Danish. Use Google language tools to translate to English.)
Stateside, a major report predicts that more than half of the 1,439 dailies in the U.S. will no longer exist either in print or online by the end of the next decade. They will be extinct. This, of course, is not news on Wall Street. Think abut the McClatchy chain, for example, which still publishes 30 daily newspapers. Over the past three years, the company's stock has fallen in value by 95 percent! Or, The New York Times Company, which has lost 75 percent of its value over the past six years.

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Twenty years ago, when I was still writing newspaper and magazine articles, as well as the occasional book or screenplay, I became vaguely aware that a new golden age of journalism was approaching, though I was clueless about what form it would take.

I'd already been publishing for twenty years, but the type of work I liked to do was becoming more and more difficult to find a home for in the mainstream media. Like many investigative reporters, I'd become frustrated that there no longer seemed to be a market for our skills.

Television, in my view, was a poor alternative to writing -- a view I hold to this day. Nevertheless, many colleagues advised me to become a TV producer. I ignored them.

It wasn't until 1994 that I recognized what form that golden age had taken -- the first web browsers able to search growing networks of databases via the Internet.

That was 14 years ago. Along with many others, I immediately started raising the alarm that those same mainstream newspapers and magazines that had turned their backs on the likes of me were themselves doomed unless they grasped the nature of the massive media transformation that had begun.

Adapt or die.

Had even a few major newspaper executives acted sooner, they and their companies might have avoided the ugliness that now is sweeping their companies toward extinction, like a raft caught in the current above Niagara Falls.

There are many causes for this tidal wave of change, but those who blame the Internet should look in the mirror first, then reflect back to Plato's Cave. Don't kill the messenger! In this case, it is actually your path to salvation.

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.