So the Rocky Mountain News is dead. Now that the important deaths are finally happening, I suppose we should keep a close eye on Seattle, San Francisco and Detroit.
I wonder if we’ll still have quality, long-form journalism a decade from now. Newspapers–and I’m talking about their content here, not their format–have long provided the bedrock upon which much of the rest of the media stands. While I’m sure at least some national news organizations commonly thought of as papers will survive, on a local level I’m worried that many cities and even some states will lose the kind of coverage upon which our democracy depends. While there are great independent media and citizen journalism-style operations out there, I doubt they’ll ever be able to match the depth and resources brought by many local newspaper organizations–even with those newspapers in severely weakened states.
My favorite newspaper in the Twin Cities isn’t the Pioneer Press or the StarTribune, but the Southwest Journal. These organizations live in an ecosystem, however, and to a large extent the Journal only makes sense in context of its larger brethren. The Journal would be incomplete without the presence of the Pioneer Press or the Strib, just as City Pages would lack an “edge” (if it still has any) without the dailies. If the big ones fail, they could take the small ones with them.
Even with the Strib in bankruptcy, we’re extremely lucky to have to major dailies, even if those dailies are complete rags compared to what they were just a decade ago. The merger of the Milwaukee Journal and Sentinel is still kind of fresh for me, and while the Journal Sentinel isn’t a bad paper, and has produced some excellent journalism, it has never come across as competitive or scrappy in the way the Sentinel or the Journal once did.
The business model is the problem, but I don’t think anyone has a tested idea of how to fix it. Sustained long-form journalism requires a lot in the way of resources, but the newspaper business draws an inordinate amount of its income through advertising that has more or less been replaced by cheaper (and often more effective) methods. I’m hoping the Detroit Free Press’ decision to cut back home delivery and focus on their online edition four days of the week works out, although the paper’s decision to wall off much of their archives behind a paid gateway suggests they’re not really ready to go all-in.
Ultimately, what may be needed is a major paper that’s willing to drop the burden of, well, paper, and become an online-only news source. If someone can make that work, there may still be hope. If not, don’t look to other forms of media to pick up the slack. If there’s no money in it, why would they?