Back in journalism school – this was some 30 years ago – a professor of mine went on at length about the future of newspapers. His name is lost to me now, but a point he made has lasted all these years.
There would come a time, he said, when we’d all be reading our news on computers.
This was in the days before the commercialization of the Internet and certainly before mobile phones, much less wireless handheld devices. I laughed. We all laughed.
So it’s 30 years later and not only do we consume our news on computers and their handheld offspring, but the very idea of newspapers is under threat. I hold in my hand a little machine through which I can blast my opinions, observations, photographs – even legitimate reportage – to the wider world. The whole world, mind you, not just my neighborhood or city.
The threat this poses to newspapers is real and extends well beyond the loss of jobs for press operators, reporters, and other emerging anachronisms. In that light, the ruling by federal Judge André Birotte Jr. supporting the Justice Department’s claim that a purchase of Freedom Communications’ newspaper assets by Tribune Publishing, owner of the Los Angeles Times, would pose serious antitrust concerns seems not to grasp the reality of our business.
“The court,” Birotte wrote, “is not convinced of Tribune’s position that the Internet renders geography and distinctions between kinds of news sources obsolete.”
Tribune responded, correctly, that the position taken by the DOJ and affirmed by Birotte reflected the reality of a bygone time.
“The division is living in a time capsule, with a framework that predates the arrival of iPhones, Google, Facebook, and modern media outlets that are killing the traditional newspaper industry,” a spokeswoman said. “It wasn’t competition from the L.A. Times that forced the Register into bankruptcy. It was the Internet and related technology.”
In truth, it might not matter to readers or staff whether Tribune or Digital First Media, the eventual successful bidder for the assets of the bankrupt publishing company, owns the Register.
The infrastructure of newsgathering is expensive – good reporting cannot be outsourced or automated, and asking reporters to do ever more with ever less is not a successful long-term strategy. Both Tribune and Digital First have shown their willingness to cut news operations to the bone to maximize their returns. (See stories by Kristin Marguerite Doidge on page 10.)
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