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.)
What does seem clear is that in an age of instant digital communication, when readers in Los Angeles are likely to get their first dose of news from The New York Times or Wall Street Journal or BuzzFeed or Ozy, none of which is based here, the idea that one organization could dominate news coverage is a relic of the past.
Sure, you can’t get coverage of what happens in our City Hall from those faraway places, but it’s not as if the competition was so fierce in that space in recent years anyway. The Times clearly dominates coverage in Los Angeles. Digital First’s Los Angeles Daily News acts as a strong watchdog on local government, but beyond City Hall it focuses on the San Fernando Valley – a market the Times has largely ceded – and lays no claim to covering news on the other side of the hill.
That leaves the Times to set the agenda.
Not much could be expected to change by extending Tribune’s reach into Orange County, where the Register already is the dominant voice. Would it really matter whether corporate Tribune or Digital First were calling the shots? Given their recent histories, neither was likely to be received warmly in the newsroom, and it’s a safe bet loyal readers would notice thinner papers before they took note of any unified editorial tone – should that even arrive.
The world, as Tom Freidman observed, has indeed flattened. Information knows no borders and even as newspaper ownership consolidates there are more places to get news – some of it even based on original reporting.
Deciding who gets to take a stab at resuscitating another failing newspaper should have been made on the merits of the revival plan, not the cash offered or the location of acquirer.
Jonathan Diamond is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at jdiamond@ labusinessjournal.com.
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