Newsless Papers

What if you opened your New York Times and discovered it was populated almost entirely with AP, Reuters, UPI, and other wire stories? What if the LA Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune all looked about the same? Good-bye Science Tuesday. Hello poor new world of newspaper publishing. Or not even that perhaps.

A growing number of articles document severe cuts to newsroom staff at these flagship dailies. David Carr sums up the most recent hits to the industry, such as the elimination of the print edition of the Christian Science Monitor, the decision by Gannett to cut 10% of its workforce (sparing that bastion of rigorous journalism, USA Today), and Time Inc plans to lay off 600. Earlier this year, the NYT itself quietly cut 100 positions from its newsroom (buy-outs and layoffs) – the first time such cuts in reporting and editing staff have occurred at The Gray Lady. The NYT likewise reports the continued decline in newspaper circulation throughout the country, with the exception of USA Today and the WSJ.

What happens when highly respected papers can no longer afford to maintain the infrastructure needed to support extensive (& expensive) national and international reporting bureaus and robust enterprise reporting throughout the newsroom?

A July 2008 report by the Pew Research Center, The Changing Newsroom, paints a bleak picture indeed. Among papers with a circulation over 100K, 85% have reduced newsroom staff in the past 3 years, and 56% anticipate more cuts in the next 12 months. Deep cuts, with 76% of large papers cutting their newsroom staff by 10-29%.

Especially worrisome is this observation: “Yet, the loss lamented most by newsroom executives is one far harder to quantify—the draining away of institutional memory—as older, and often more expensive, journalists are encouraged to leave through structured buyouts.”

Once the best and most experienced journalists and editors are gone – and with them decades of experience in reporting skills and ethics – the loss of quality will cause circulation to drop even faster, with predictable consequences. The reliable information and investigative reporting we all rely upon does not come cheaply and will not come via the Internet in the absence of hard journalism. As David Carr concludes:

At the recent American Magazine Conference, one of the speakers worried that if the great brands of journalism — the trusted news sources readers have relied on — were to vanish, then the Web itself would quickly become a “cesspool” of useless information. That kind of hand-wringing is a staple of industry gatherings.

But in this case, it wasn’t an old journalism hack lamenting his industry. It was Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google.

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