SAN FRANCISCO, Feb. 27, 2009— -- The headlines are grim. Financial trouble is pushing newspapers, which have been an American staple in small towns and major cities for more than 400 years, to the brink.
From the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colo., which published its last edition today, to the San Francisco Chronicle, which is in danger of stopping the presses, trouble is brewing.
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The 144-year-old, Hearst-owned San Francisco paper has survived fire and earthquakes but may not survive in the current economic climate. It has had to cut a third of its newsroom in the past two years and is desperately seeking a financial savior.
"I don't think I'm safe, and I don't think anyone in that newsroom feels that they're safe," said C.W. Nevius, columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Even the American Society of Newspaper Editors today announced it has canceled its 2009 convention, a first since World War II, concluding that "the challenges editors face at their newspapers demand their full attention."
Journalists say that the loss of newspapers not only hurts the industry but also the communities they serve.
"Newspapers are the glue that can hold a community together, whether it's a big city or a small town," said Walter Isaacson, CEO of the nonprofit Aspen Institute and a former editor of Time magazine. "The type of journalism that a daily newspaper does is indispensable to holding people accountable in the town, to bringing us together as communities and to giving us the information needed to help a democracy."
Daily newspapers have been the public's eyes and ears, exposing corruption and scams. Isaacson notes that they are especially necessary in these times of economic turmoil to provide accountability.
"We are in a situation with the huge stimulus package that's going to be spent all across this nation and a big financial crisis and banking crisis," he said. "And what we need is good, trained journalists who can play the role of watchdog."
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In Connecticut, the New Britain Herald's investigation of urban blight forced local officials to take action. A month ago, the paper was on the verge of shutting its doors but was rescued by an influx of cash from a local entrepreneur.
"I think that you lose a lot of content that you can't get anywhere else," says Marc Levy, editor of the New Britain Herald.
Levy suggested that much local coverage will be lost, everything from an obituary to a Boy Scout honor, "so much of this stuff doesn't appear anywhere else and will never appear anywhere else."
News Writes Its Own Obit
The final story in the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News today was about its own demise.
"We part in sorrow because we know so much lies ahead that will be worth telling, and we will not be there to do so," the staff wrote in their parting message. "We hope Coloradans will remember this newspaper fondly from generation to generation, a reminder of Denver's history -- the ambitions, foibles and virtues of its settlers and those who followed."
Internet Poses Challenge to Newspapers' Health
At the root of the problem for newspapers is the increased use of the Internet. A recent Pew Research study found that for the first time ever, more people get news for free online than from a newspaper. Making matters worse, the classified ads, a primary revenue source, have gone online as well.
"Where do people think the news online comes from?" Isaacson asked. "If we kill all the news organizations, and we kill all the newspapers, the richness of what we have online is going to disappear."
Others argue that whether newspapers in their current form survive is becoming less important. New ways of reporting, such as blogging, are emerging every day, and newspapers must adapt.
"The Internet's come along, and it's changed fundamentally the structure of the economy, society and media," said Jeff Jarvis, blogger and author of "What Would Google Do?"
"And we have to deal with that. We have to find sustainable business models that will work for news going on. The point here is to find the new opportunities the Internet provides and not to whine and whine about how the Internet is killing the old ways."
For now, it's survival of the fittest with The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post all posting loses. And San Francisco is hoping it doesn't become the first big city without a big paper.