Thursday, February 26, 2009

Video Killed the Radio Star

Or something like that.

Media conglomerate EW Scripps Co (SSP.N) will shut down the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rocky Mountain News after failing to lure qualified buyers, as the industry endures a painful and prolonged economic downturn.

The 150-year-old Denver newspaper will run its final edition on Friday but employees will remain on the Scripps payroll through April 28.

Scripps management met with employees on Thursday morning and announced the closure. The newspaper's demise had been expected after the firm said in December it was putting the tabloid up for sale, as advertisers slashed budgets and readers headed online to get their news amid a global recession.

Shares of Scripps, which also owns television stations, were down 9.3 percent in afternoon trade.

The decision comes after a number of high-profile newspaper chains had taken steps to preserve their bottom lines by cutting costs. This week, the Hearst Corp said it may shut the San Francisco Chronicle, the city's main newspaper.

As a child, I read the paper pretty much every day, a habit I continued into adulthood, until I started using the internet, and became a very casual newspaper reader. I think all that newspaper reading improved me immensely, because a typical newspaper covers so many topics a reasonably curious and open-minded person can't help but expand their horizons by regularly reading them. I started, for example, reading the sports pages, then the local news, then national news and politics. As my reading skills improved, I moved on to more sophisticated papers, and developed an interest in business and politics from the WSJ at about 14 -- a much younger age than most people would. Had it not been for newspapers I have no idea what form my intellectual development would have taken, but I doubt I would have the broad range of interests I now do. For me, newspapers were a sort of liberal arts college -- I learned a little bit about everything. Can the internet replace that experience for today's youth? Absolutely it can -- it can even do better, because of all the information out there. But will it? I don't think so. Had I been able, for example, to play online games and so on instead of reading newspapers and books, I'd have played online games. They satisfy the same curiosity and urge to explore that reading does, without adding much information or reasoning ability: an entertaining, but highly educational, past time is largely going to be replaced by a merely entertaining one.

I also wonder, as these institutions come crashing down, who is going to cover local news, who is going to keep citizens informed about the goings on in their communities, who is going to at least try to keep regional politicians honest, who, in short, is going to fulfill the historic role of smaller newspapers. Most bloggers work for free, or close to it, so you aren't likely to get a consistently professional job from that source. This is a really bad development. I keep thinking these things have a way of working themselves out, that people tend to create the institutions they need, and the business models of, say, Huffpo or TPM or Politico or even Craigslist are flexible enough for them to add a local news component -- but then I think of the ratings of all these reality TV shows and so on, and wonder just how different my idea of need is from most other peoples' ideas of need.