With so many people freeloading their news online (ahem!), of course it had to happen in Seattle, a hive of American computing. On Tuesday, the final issue of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer will be published, and the paper will go web-only. It's the city's oldest newspaper, having started in the pioneer days of 1863.
To many people, that means they'll just have to find out online who made it through on American Idol this week.
To those of us who know how news is put together, though, the newspaper plague is alarming. Papers in American cities west of the Mississippi have been particularly hard hit by the times. Colorado lost its Rocky Mountain News, publishing since 1859, last month. The Tucson Citizen, which covered the shootout at the OK Corral, will die on March 21. And last week, the San Francisco Chronicle's workers accepted tough concessions in a last-ditch effort to keep their paper alive. Meanwhile, publishers of papers in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia have all sought bankruptcy protection. Even National Public Radio has told its workers that they now have to get their news online.
Although it will be online, there's no way the P-I can afford to keep a staff of journalists as large as it has done in the past. That means many aspects of community life will have to go uncovered.
Hearst, which has owned the paper since the '20s, put it up for sale in January, saying that if it didn't find a buyer in 60 days, it would be shut down. There was no buyer (the paper lost $14 million last year), and tonight, editors will put the paper to bed for the last time. Even the P-I's competitor, the Seattle Times, mourned the passing, because in this case, it's not a competitive victory. The whole market for printed paper is dying, with disastrous cultural consequences.
Congratulations! You're getting much of your news for free. One recent Pew Research poll said that fewer than half of Americans thought losing their local papers would harm civic life in their cities. They're wrong, at least based on how online news is structured now.
But the web is a different model for delivering the news, it's also a different model for reading it. The web lives or dies by "clicks," or the number of times people read stories. When Americans see a list of news headlines online, which one do you think they're more likely to click: the story about the city council meeting where zoning was changed to allow strip mining outside of town, or the story about how Kim Kardashian is blogging about the sex she had this weekend? I think we both know the answer to that, and I think we both know which kinds of stories that publications will be chasing in order to get clicks.
That's the bottom line. I like reading my news on the Web, too. But we have been warned: If we reinvent the market, we will reinvent the news that reaches us. From now on, as more printed papers perish, a lot of news we need to know is not going to end up in front of our eyeballs.
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