Rick Holmes: Why newspapers are in trouble, and what's at stake

Rick Holmes

I don't know how you're reading these words. You might be sitting in the spring sun on the back porch, coffee in hand, surrounded by multiple sections of multiple newspapers. That's how I like to spend my Sunday mornings, but the sections have gotten thinner of late, and with the Boston Globe hanging by a thread, I may soon have fewer newspapers to keep me busy.

Or you might be clicking through this column on your laptop in the living room, TV running in the background. I do some of that too, skipping through newspapers around the world I could never afford to buy. You might be reading it on your cell phone or on your Kindle.

Maybe you went looking for it on this newspaper's Web site. Maybe it was linked from some other site - from Google or Yahoo or some blog you read. Maybe a friend e-mailed it to you.

However you got here, thanks for reading. But how you got here matters. More to the point, whether you paid for it matters. Newspapers are businesses, and no business can keep losing money and survive.

Frankly, those of you who are reading this for free aren't helping. And the conundrum of how to get online readers to pay is just one of the ways the Internet has turned newspapers into dinosaurs.

It's not like newspapers didn't see this coming. Some newspapers, including the one I write for, had stories distributed electronically years before there was a World Wide Web. Publishers and editors have attended seminars on how to cope with changing technology for decades. We started putting classified ads online a decade or more ago. Newspapers like ours are running as fast as they can to put more stuff online - blogs, videos, comments from readers - to attract Web surfers.

But newspapers have had a hard time competing with Web-only operations for several reasons. Newspapers have never been good at giving anything away for free - we've got too many bills to pay, for starters - and the Internet has convinced people information should be free.

And newspapers are stuck with huge, expensive presses, the cost of newsprint, and employees paid to run the presses, bundle the papers, throw them in trucks and deliver them to homes and stores. A Web site doesn't have all that overhead, so it can get away without charging for its product.

Newspapers make their money off advertising. Everything - from how many pages are in the paper each day to the size of the newsroom staff - is dictated by how many ads are sold. A huge part of that revenue stream is classified advertising, and the Internet has taken that business away.

Consider Craigslist, one of newspapers' main online competitors. Craigslist offers online classified ads in 450 metropolitan areas. You can buy or sell anything from a used lawnmower to a kinky date. With a handful of exceptions, there are no user fees, no banner ads.

Craigslist gets 20 billion page hits a day, and nearly all the work is done by customers and computers. It has only 28 employees. Compare that to the hundreds - thousands - of classified salespeople and ad processors at thousands of big and small newspapers competing with Craigslist.

And Craigslist doesn't have a newsroom to support. Internet news services like Google and Yahoo don't have many employees either - no reporters, no editors. Computers lift stories from newspapers that make no money off the transaction. Yes, we sell ads on our Web pages, more and more of them all the time. But they don't sell for anywhere close to the prices we can charge for print ads.

The result of these pressures - online competition, lost revenue, declining paid readership and a recession that has a tough situation a whole lot worse - is the withering of newsroom staffs. At papers large and small, across the country, fewer reporters and editors are expected to do more work.

News gathering is a labor intensive activity. You can transmit news with the flash of electrons, but it takes people to produce news. If you want more police news, you put a reporter on the cop beat. If you want more stories on town hall, you assign a reporter to it.

At the local level, the withering of the newsroom means there are school committees and city councils and boards of selectmen that never see a professional reporter unless there's been a death threat or an indictment.

At the state level, the population in the State House press gallery has diminished significantly in the last 25 years, the result of newspaper consolidation, the attitude that government coverage isn't sexy enough to draw readers, and the availability of wire services to cover the big stories.

We've lost depth of coverage and we've lost watchdogs. There's too much going on, and not enough people paying attention. As a result, a lot of stories never get written.

The Massachusett's biggest watchdog, the Boston Globe, has been losing teeth for years. It has lost reporters, including the most knowledgeable ones, and it has cut back on the space available to print their stories. Now it's being threatened with closure by its owners, The New York Times Co., and it can survive only by cutting its staff even more.

A dramatically downsized Globe won't have the resources or the institutional strength to go after a tough story like the clergy abuse scandal - and if it weren't for the Globe, some of those priests would still be in their parishes. If the Globe doesn't have enough staff to launch an investigation that might not produce a story for weeks or months - a luxury other Massachusetts newspapers can no longer afford - who'll get to the bottom of the next Big Dig? Who'll uncover pension abuse by state employees? What other scandals will never be exposed?

Opinionated writers are easy to find, and a lot of them blog for free. What's expensive is hiring someone to report the facts on which we base our arguments, and if there's no one to pay professionals to do it, we'll only have the facts those with a vested interest want us to have.

Newspapers are struggling to come up with a new business model, but you don't have to take a paycheck from a newspaper company to have a stake in their efforts.

A newspaper does more than make money by transmitting information. It builds a healthy community. It connects people to their neighbors. It helps set community priorities and guide public debate. It serves as an invaluable watchdog on government, business and politics.

When people hear I write for a newspaper, they often tell me they can't live without their daily dose of newsprint. I read things online, they say, but I really like having a stack of newsprint I can hold and fold and carry around with me. I always thank them, and urge them to keep reading. But I've noticed that I never hear that from anyone under 40.

An editor I worked for years ago used to describe his favorite cartoon, which showed two men up to their necks in quicksand. "I don't care what they say," said one. "I'm going to struggle."

That's the mood at newspapers across the country. We may be dinosaurs in the tarpits, an endangered species sinking fast. But we are struggling to adapt, convinced there's value and even nobility in what we do, and certain that the world will be a poorer place if newspapers are allowed to become extinct.

Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at rholmes@cnc.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at HolmesAndCo.