This fall, New Orleans will become the largest American city without a daily newspaper. After 175 years, the venerable Times-Picayune will lay off a portion of its staff, move to a web-focused news model and print only on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. It marks the end of an era.
Over the last decade, economic and social forces have been driving the traditional broadsheet closer to extinction. The rise of the blog and the advent of camera phones and mobile Internet browsing opened the floodgates of “citizen journalism.” Suddenly, everyone with a phone was a journalist, undermining the role of the pros.
The second force was the fault of the newspapers themselves. In the late-90s and early-2000s, papers began posting their content online for free in the hopes that online advertising would pay for it. It didn’t. Now, advertisers in a weak economy are afraid to buy online ad space and readers used to getting their news for free don’t want to pay for it.
Paywalls may save the industry giants like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, but what about the little guys? What happens to the local dailies when their revenue streams dry up? They close up shop, like the Denver’s Rocky Mountain News or The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Everywhere, newspapers are cutting back or collapsing. Circulation is down, online readership is up and the old school news model (you know, the ones with the giant newsrooms filled with hard-drinking, cigarette-smoking, fedora-wearing, typewriter-pounding, suspender-snapping beat reporters) is no longer sustainable.
So, what happens when a town loses its daily news? According to the American Journalism Review, people stop voting and incumbent politicians have an easier time keeping their positions. Without the Fourth Estate in its role as the watchdog of government, we lose not just a hunk of dead trees, but also some of our ability to monitor the actions of our elected officials.
Perhaps regular folks (or maybe journalists left unemployed by the closure of their paper) will pick up the slack and deliver all the news that’s fit to tweet out of a sense of obligation to society. In some instances, this has already worked. A Twitter feed here in Flagstaff became the defacto source for updates on the recent wildfires in our area after the local TV news station shut down their operations. But what about the less glamorous side of reporting? Will someone really step up to provide unbiased reporting on city council meetings? Will cities get the in-depth, investigative coverage they need without a daily newspaper?
So, is this the end of the good old fashioned daily? I hope not. The newspaper isn’t dead yet and I, for one, hope to see its renaissance in the coming years. As someone who has studied journalism and worked in a newsroom, I can’t imagine a city without a printed paper. While we wait for the silver bullet to solve the problems of funding daily production, we must decide how much we value our news and the role it plays in our democracy.
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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, filmmaker and former newspaper columnist in Flagstaff, Arizona who sometimes writes his byline in the third person to provide himself with a false sense of legitimacy. You can join the discussion in the comments below and follow him on Twitter: @jonnyeberle.