Gargling Scotch from Tankards

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

It's enough to make a newspaper reporter take up knitting, or driving a cab, or fishing -- anything but journalism.

The dismal news about the newspaper industry has gotten all of us ink-stained wretches into a funk.

Every day, we hear something terrible about the profession, whether it's the notion that millions of readers are ditching their subscriptions to take up video games, or that some formerly revered reporter has sunk to some new depth of moral depravity.

Newspapers everywhere are cutting their staffs. "More Than 1,900 Newspaper Jobs Lost in 2005," cried a headline in the trade paper Editor & Publisher. Knight-Ridder the second-largest publicly traded newspaper chain in the nation is up for sale. The question is: Does anybody really want it?

Newspaper circulation in the United States has slipped by 9 million from a high of 63.3 million in 1984. Next year alone, daily papers could lose as many as 2.5 million subscribers, the L.A. Times predicted. Classified ads, where newspapers get most of their money, are in trouble.

Tom Taulli, on the Motley Fool website, said newspapers could lose $4 billion in classified revenue to the Internet by 2007. The threat is largest, he said, in the jobs, cars, and real estate categories, where, by some estimates, newspapers generate approximately 70 percent of their ad revenues.

The recent string of dismal headlines about the newspaper business has begun to resemble "a multivehicle pileup on the freeway," David Carr wrote in The New York Times.

But the scariest development, he said, was "the announcement that Google, the search engine company that wants to be the wallpaper of the future, was going live with Google Base, a user-generated database in which people can upload any old thing they feel like."

In a nutshell, that means free classified ads.

"By allowing its audience to customize content and post it for free," Carr wrote, "Google could all but wipe out the middle man, which could be your friendly neighborhood daily paper."

But wait a minute, says Rick Edmonds, a former newspaper editor and publisher."Is the sky falling in?" he asked. "I don't think so." In a column for Newsday, Edmonds advised us to consider some of what American newspapers still have going for them: Roughly 53,000 full-time professionals gathering, writing and editing the news; advertising revenues of roughly $48 billion a year, more than four times the entire Internet; and profit margins, down from their peak, but still at 20 percent.

The industry, Edmonds wrote, needs to get urgent about adapting to the Internet age. "The whole newsroom," he said, "needs to think 24/7, online. Voice, chat, video and citizen contributions all have a place."

That kind of advice baffles the old-timers. Gene Weingarten, in the Washington Post, wrote that we journalists "just can't seem to understand why people aren't buying as many subscriptions as they once did, and are instead reading our online versions, which we give away free."

Weingarten is worried about how newspaper editors are going about trying to stop the declines in circulation.

"Editors seem to believe," he wrote, "that the way to attract more readers is to be nicer and more responsive to them, reversing a hallowed, hundred-year tradition in which journalists treated readers like fungi. Back in the crusty old days when newsmen gargled Scotch from tankards, smoked cigars as thick as bratwurst and pistol-whipped sources into talking readers were essentially seen as nuisances. When a reader came into a newsroom with a complaint, he would be sent from desk to desk, finally being directed to the 'complaints department,' which turned out to be the fourth-floor urinal."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan