April 4, 2008 -- Flash! Here's a breaking item on Wednesday's PR NewsWire from Germany: "According to InfoCom's latest research, newspapers are realizing that the most important part of the word is 'news' and not 'paper.'"
Wow! Hold the presses … er, literally.
If that newly discovered bit of wisdom strikes you as very old, tired news, then you obviously are not an executive in the newspaper industry.
For many of them -- even after endless rounds of lay-offs plummeting circulations and, as of this week, the industry's worst financial news in a half-century -- the death of newsprint still seems an impossible turn of events.
Meanwhile, all the rest of us -- including some of us lifelong (in my case, fourth-generation) journalists -- have moved on.
This morning, as always, I stopped by Peet's Coffee in Cupertino for my morning latte -- and spotted a San Jose Mercury-News lying abandoned on a nearby table. It's telling that I was surprised to see it: Here, in what used to be a major source of readers for the Merc, a wealthy community just a couple miles each from Apple, Google, eBay, Intel and HP, the sight of the local newspaper has become an increasingly rare event.
I see a lot of people at Peet's reading the news, but almost always on their laptops, iPhones or Blackberries. To see an actual newspaper lying there was… well, exotic.
Just for fun, I grabbed the business section and paged through it. It didn't take long.
In late 1979, the Merc hired me to work for that section. It had belatedly discovered that Silicon Valley had grown up in its backyard and realized that it wasn't covering that beat properly -- or tapping into its advertising.
So, I was hired out of Hewlett-Packard public relations (a very rare move in those days, showing how desperate it was) to become the paper's first tech reporter. It was a unique assignment: The only other people covering tech in those days wrote for trade magazines. Indeed, it turned out that I was probably the world's first daily high-tech reporter.
I quit two years later, but by then the Mercury-News was already growing rich off tech company advertising and want ads, and the little business section was starting to swell into a major part of the newspaper. The paper even launched a special Business Monday section that began to dominate the paper, rake in tons of money and even set the agenda for news coverage of Silicon Valley.
Those were the glory days of the Merc, and the added profits not only helped Knight-Ridder support its less profitable papers, like the Philadelphia Inquirer, but there was still enough cash left over for the Merc to open bureaus around the world and hire more top reporters. And as the Merc began to move into the top rank of newspapers, it also began to win Pulitzers, which only polished its reputation. I even got nominated myself, for a series on toxic chemical leaks in Silicon Valley that would have been impossible to do a few years before.
In those days, I was writing books, managing my own newspaper syndicate and later, running a business magazine. And the Merc for me was an invaluable tool: It kept me up-to-date on what was going on in the Valley, gave me story ideas and more often than not, scooped me.
But as we entered the new century, something odd happened. Sept. 11 was part of it: I started surfing the Web that day in a desperate search for breaking news … and never really left. Then one day I noticed, while taking out the recyclables, that the can was filled with a week's worth of San Jose Mercury-News (and San Francisco Chronicles), all of them unopened. I realized that this had been going on for months.
It was that realization that led me to write one of these ABC columns. In it, after noting my change of reading behavior, and confirming that the same thing was happening to my friends (including a two-time Pulitzer winner), I took the bold step of predicting the death of newspapers.
Looking back, I was the first person in the mainstream media to do so, beating Rupert Murdoch (whose speechwriter apparently read my column) by a matter of weeks. Murdoch caught most of the flak, but I got my share.
Well, needless to say, what was apostasy then is a commonplace now. Every quarter now, the newspaper industry announces the latest distressing financial news. Last week, the Newspaper Association of America announced that print advertising at U.S. newspapers sank 9.4 percent in 2007. It is a vicious downward spiral that has now begun to infect the magazine industry as well. I'm on a Merc alumni e-mail list, and every few months I get another sad message of major layoffs at the paper -- the most recent, a couple weeks ago, excised some of the paper's oldest veterans, folks who'd been loyal employees since my days at the paper. And I regularly get personal e-mails from old friends in the newspaper biz, asking about job opportunities, requesting recommending letters and saddest of all, predicting the imminent shuttering of the Merc.
So, it was with a certain sadness and nostalgia that I thumbed through the Mercury-News business section this morning and what surprised me was not what was being lost, but how little there was left to lose.
Just a handful of stories to cover the most influential business community on the planet -- this wasn't a disappointment anymore, but an insult to advertisers and readers. And, losing readers, advertisers and classified ads, shrinking its news hole, having lost most of its veteran reporters, and reducing itself to a skeleton staff, the Merc had little choice now but to make its coverage even thinner, the insult to its remaining readers ever greater.
After glancing at the paper for a few seconds, I tossed it back on the pile, not out of disappointment or anger, but indifference. Nothing had caught my eye, or held my interest. I had far better things to do -- like going home and surfing the Web for news.
On Tuesday, the Pulitzer Prizes will be announced. And if they are anything like last year, the journalism awards will go to the usual collection of dying newspapers: the Oregonian (which my great-grandfather helped found), the L.A. Times (where my grandmother was one of the first women in the newsroom), the Miami Herald, and Newsday. There will be the usual flurry of media, and then those newspapers will go back to dying.
Meanwhile, the people who should be the winners of these awards will be ignored -- indeed, many aren't even eligible. For example, after I tossed the Merc aside and drove home, I went on the Web and read a fabulous entry in a blog called Kaboom by a soldier known only as "Lt.G." It was some of the best first-person reporting I've read all year.
The single most worthy recipient of a Pulitzer this year is Michael Yon (with fellow Middle East blogger Michael Totten a close second). Yon's reporting from Iraq is so superior to anything being done in the mainstream media that those other reporters should hang their heads and go home. But Yon doesn't work for a newspaper, he survives instead on donations from readers, so he probably isn't even eligible.
By the same token, the Pulitzer for commentary will probably go to some codger at the Detroit Free Press, when it should probably go to someone who is actually clever, influential and widely read, like Mickey Kaus at Slate.com. And how about Terry Teachout (AboutLastNight) for cultural criticism? And instead of handing a disguised (as "editorial writing" or some other cover) lifetime achievement award to yet one more doddering old nostalgia merchant, how about awarding it to someone who actually has transformed the journalism world in the last decade: like Arianna Huffington or Roger L. Simon, Glenn Reynolds or Markos (Kos) Moulitsas? Or better yet, how about Matt Drudge, who is secretly read by every reporter in the world?
But if you think that's going to happen, you are still living, like the newspaper world, in 1998, or 1898. The Pulitzer Prizes are for newspaper reporting -- meaning print, with a quick head-nod toward newspaper Web sites. Not for the far bigger, more demanding and more influential world of independent online journalism.
Perhaps somebody should send a copy of that InfoCom report to the Pulitzer selection committee.
TAD'S TAB: If you're looking for something to keep you up at night, or at least to freak you out momentarily, visit http://cubo.cc/. There you will find a tranquil but disturbing looking woman whose bloodshot eyes will track the movement of your mouse. One of the links from the site will lead you to a Web site that sells chocolates shaped like human limbs. There are a lot of strange and mysterious websites out there, and this one is right up there.
This is the opinion of the columnist, and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michael S. Malone is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the ABCNEWS.com Silicon Insider columnist since 2000.