Death of the dailies

Western Print Media

It is a major catastrophe: Dozens of daily newspapers are bankrupt. In the United States, at least 120 have already closed. And the tsunami is now striking Europe. Not even institutions once considered the journals of record are safe: Spain’s ‘El Pais’, France’s ‘Le Monde’, ‘The Times’ and ‘The Independent’ of the United Kingdom and Italy’s ‘Corriere della Sera’ and ‘La Repubblica’ are all accumulating major economic losses as a result of the drop in subscriptions and the collapse of advertising.

The prestigious ‘New York Times’ had to seek help from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim; the Tribune Company, publisher of the ‘Chicago Tribune’ and ‘Los Angeles Times’, as well as the Hearst Corporation, owner of the ‘San Francisco Chronicle’, are bankrupt; News Corp, Rupert Murdoch’s powerful multi-media group which publishes the ‘Wall Street Journal’, reported losses of 2.5 billion euros.

To reduce costs many publications are cutting back on the number of pages: the ‘Washington Post’ has eliminated its prestigious book review; the ‘Christian Science Monitor’ has dropped its paper edition and now exists only on the internet; the ‘Financial Times’ is asking its editors to consider a three-day weeks and has drastically trimmed its staff.

There have been massive layoffs. Since January 2008, the American newspaper industry has shed 21,000 jobs. In Spain, between June 2008 and April 2009, 2,221 journalists lost their jobs.

The for-pay daily paper is on the edge of a cliff and desperately searching for ways to survive. Certain analysts feel that this form of information is simply obsolete. Michael Wolf of Newser predicts that 80 per cent of US papers will disappear. Rupert Murdoch is even more pessimistic: he thinks that in the next decade newspapers will cease to exist entirely.

This situation, already very grim, was seriously aggravated by the global economic crisis, which triggered a plunge in advertising and a restriction of credit. Then, at the worst possible time, the structural problems of the sector grew worse: the problems inherent in the commodification of information, the newspaper industry’s dependence on advertising, a loss of credibility, drop in the number of subscribers, competition from free newspapers, and an aging readership.

In Latin America, there is an additional challenge: the much needed democratic reforms undertaken by certain governments  (Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela) against the ‘media barons’ — private groups with press monopolies. The effort has set off against these governments and their presidents a series of scurrilous attacks milled by the most spiteful major media and their usual accomplices.

The daily paper continues to use an economic and industrial model that simply doesn’t work. And the option of building mega international multi-media conglomerates, common between 1980-1990, would make no sense today with the proliferation of new modes of information distribution and of entertainment via the internet and mobile phones.

Paradoxically, newspapers have never enjoyed as massive an audience as they do today. With the internet, the number of readers has exploded. However, the use of the cyber world is still poorly thought out and currently features a particular injustice: readers who buy the print edition end up subsidising those who read the free on-line digital edition of the paper, which is both larger and more user-friendly. This is partly because web advertising never really came into its own, being far less expensive that in print.

The losses and gains produced by the advent of the internet never balanced out. Groping blindly, the print media has desperately sought ways to adapt to the rapid change and survive. Following the example of iTunes, some tried to impose small fees for reading material on line.

Rupert Murdoch decided that beginning in 2010, all access to the ‘Wall Street Journal’ with any technology, whether the Blackberry or iPhone or the Kindle electronic reader, will cost. The search engine Google is considering a system that would make it possible to charge for any digital access to daily newspapers and channel the revenue to the publisher.

But can such measures save the dying patient? Few think so. Because there is another, even more worrying factor in the mix: plunging credibility. The newspaper’s current obsession with instantaneous reporting and getting the story first leads to a multiplication of errors.

The demagogic request that ‘reader/journalists’ post their blogs, photos, and videos on the newspaper’s website only increases the risk of transmitting mistakes. And adopting the defence of the business strategy as the editorial line (which we see in various dominant papers today) leads to the imposition of a subjective, arbitrary, and partisan slant.

Meanwhile, faced with the new ‘mortal sins’ of journalism, the people feel their rights are being eroded. They know that having reliable, quality information is more important than ever, for them and for democracy, and they are asking where they can turn to find the truth.

(The writer is the editor of ‘Le Monde Diplomatique’ in Spanish)

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