I refer, of course, to the crumbling collapse of the great newspaper empires that ruled America’s media and political life for a century. This week the Chicago Tribune, owner of several other papers nationwide and the Chicago Cubs, declared bankruptcy, citing some 13 billion bucks in red ink overall.
Our nation was built on urban literacy and a dedication to the distribution of information to the public, largely through the printed page. By the middle of the 18th century freedom of the press was the privilege of anyone who owned one, and the big city printers were making fortunes.
Four or five competing mastheads, often controlled by one or another political machine, put three editions and “extras” on the streets with newsboys crying the headlines. The heyday of journalism with brilliant editorialists and pundits, both national and local, breaking stories and scandal with equal enthusiasm. Power from the press created the Spanish American War, dozens of little deployments throughout the Caribbean and Latin America and both the World Wars. Hearst, Pulitzer and other “barons of ink” molded the public mind and even the new radio and film media imitated the formats of print, featuring superficial short story formats and commentators often drawn from the city rooms of the major dailies.
But that was then, this is now and the papers are suffering, both financially and in the basic mission of distributing information in a timely manner. By the time news hits the streets in the morning paper, it is likely two to four days old, and even local mayhem and murder are mostly yesterday’s events. The TV 24-hour news cycle makes global reporting a thing of hours at best and minutes all too often. Financial disaster is largely due to the creation of Internet classified advertising, which has driven down the paper’s ad line revenue by as much as 40 percent.
The papers themselves are a major factor in the endgame as well. Low income causes editors to buy cheap mass circulation syndicated features, leaving little room for local writers and artists. The high priests of column commentary are dying off and nobody seems to be rising to fill their places. Mike Royko is gone, Bob Novak is going fast and nobody has stepped up to cover San Francisco since Charles McCabe and Stan Delaplane. Even Herb Caen has proven irreplaceable at petty gossip and restaurant plugs.
The harsh truth is only the old and literate enjoy the liesure to settle onto a park bench with the morning fish wrap, and they are a shrinking market. The new century citizenry will get their news pre-digested by pundits and comedians, with a large dose of peer commentary from the blogosphere.
The decline and fall of the publishing empires is probably a good thing in the long run, but what will we do to line our birdcages?
“Travus T. Hipp” is a 40-year veteran radio commentator with six stations in California carrying his daily version of the news and opinions. “The Poor Hippy’s Paul Harvey,” Travus is a member of the Nevada Broadcasters Hall of Fame, but unemployable in the Silver State due to his eclectic political views.