The Sheer Stupidity of Newspapers These Days

The most heated topic in the blogosphere this week was the announcement by James Lileks, one of the world's most popular bloggers, that his longtime employer, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, was taking away his print column and putting him back on the reporting beat.

This announcement, which first appeared late Monday night in Lileks' column, initially drew shocked disbelief, then an explosion of anger — mostly in the form of letters to Lileks in support (including one from me) and to the Star-Tribune in righteous fury. On his radio show, Hugh Hewitt devoted a couple hours of precious airtime to the news.

Such an outpouring seemed to astonish even Lileks, whose blog about his daily life, typically featuring his dog, Jasper, and daughter "Gnat," have become staples of many readers' daily lives. Hewitt, I think accurately, compared it to the New Yorker asking E.B. White to switch to restaurant reviews, the L.A. Times transferring Jim Murray to the county government beat, or -- in an analogy especially appreciated by this longtime Northern Californian -- to the San Francisco Chronicle asking the late Herb Caen to give up his column and cover the police blotter. Even Dave Barry waded in to shake his head at the sheer stupidity of newspapers these days.

One of the reasons for this intense reaction is that for most of us in the rest of the world, the only thing we know about Minneapolis these days, and certainly about the Star-Tribune, is what we read in Lileks.com. In other words, James Lileks is far bigger than the newspaper that employs him, is its single most effective bastion against falling subscription revenues, and is its most powerful marketing and promotion tool.

To rip that platform out from underneath its single most important asset now makes the "Strib" the poster child for the astonishingly stupid and suicidal decisions made by newspapers in the 21st century.

The Death Process Sped Up?

It's only been a couple of years since I first made the prediction, which earned me a ton of brickbats in the media, that newspapers were dying, and that only a handful would survive this decade, and that even those would be utterly transformed.

A crucial reason for that, I said at the time, was that as newspapers began to spiral down, they would lay off their top talent first and be unable to recruit the best and brightest of the next generation. The result would be a rapid collapse of the intellectual capital in those institutions. In other words, they would grow dumber and make more and more stupid mistakes.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune is sad proof of my prediction. I now put it near the top of my doomed list.

In the meantime, Lileks has been buried in suggestions for what he should do next with his career, most of them involving signing on to some other publication. But no one has suggested what seems to me to be the obvious solution for both him and his newspaper: The Minneapolis Star-Tribune should simply let its employees go work at home or at Starbucks, sell off its building and printing plant, and use the resulting revenues to buy editorial space on Lileks.com.

Lileks already got more readers than the Strib, and they are certainly more loyal. And, of course, his site is actually growing. But best of all, his business judgment seems far superior to the clowns currently running the newspaper.

Seems to me like a win-win for everyone.

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