Wednesday, August 19, 2009

An obituary for American daily newspapers?

Is it time to write the obituary for the American daily newspapers? What do you think?

I wrote this column below for the Duluth News Tribune in May 2008. Since then talk of the demise of newspapers has not abated at all -- it's increased. Most of the time the commentary about the future of newspapers is pretty serious, so I thought I'd post this somewhat light-hearted take on it. About a month after this column was published, the Duluth daily newspaper discontinued my column, so my concerns about my writings showing up in the bottom of bird cages have ceased. -- J.H.

Don’t count newspapers out quite yet...
By Jim Heffernan

Is it time to write the obituary for American daily newspapers? Hearing all the talk about the way newspapers are struggling, it sounds for all the world like they’re finished. Kaput.

As we used to say in the West End (now known as Lincoln Park), “Who’d a thunk it?”

Well, I thunk it years and years ago. At least 20 years ago, as a full-time journalist on the very paper you’re holding at this moment (unless you’re reading it on line), I said: “Twenty years from now they won’t be cutting down trees to deliver this rag to people’s porches.”

But I was wrong. Here it is 20 years later and newspapers are still being delivered every day to willing subscribers. So what will it take, another 20 years to kill off newspapers as we have known and hated them for, what, some 300 years?

Hated them? What kind of talk is that, especially from someone who has spent more than 40 years as a “print” journalist; someone who has never eaten a scrap of food that wasn’t bought with the ill-gotten gains of newspaper publication? (Well, there was that short period as a railroad clerk, but the newspaper rescued me from that.)

I say “hated” because it’s been my experience that many, many people think they hate the newspaper but still read it and even subscribe just to see what those dummies are putting out today. That is until one of their children or grandchildren ends up in a picture in the paper for some great achievement, or the paper does a nice feature on their church or club. Then, for the time being, they love the paper until they see something in it they don’t like, and the circle is complete.

And many of those people let the paper know in no uncertain terms what they think of it. Disgruntled readers who have contacted me are often practitioners of the “fish wrapper” and “bird cage liner” schools of journalistic criticism. “All it’s good for, you know, is wrapping fish, you know,” is an example of a typical quote.

Well that’s something, isn’t it? Especially with Minnesota’s fishing opener this weekend with 5.1 million anglers expected to participate. Wait a minute, that’s the entire population of the state. Surely someone will stay home to honor mom on this important Hallmark holiday.

If the ice is out and fishing is good on the opener (ever hear that happening?), think of the thousands upon thousands of newspapers that will be needed in the cleaning and wrapping process. I can’t see the demise of newspapers anytime soon as long as there is a fishing season.

They’re not quite as useful as birdcage liners, but useful nevertheless. I once saw a birdcage lined with the very page this column runs on, with my mug staring up at the underside of a parakeet. Humbling.

Newspapers are trying like mad to transfer their product over to the Worldwide Web, but I don’t think it’s ever going to catch on. What are you supposed to do if there’s a pesky fly buzzing around the room, fold up your computer and swat it?

I predict that newspapers will be around for a long time. After all, what else is black and white and red all over?

(originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on Sunday, May 11, 2008)

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