Killing the messenger

By reading this article online, you may be complicit in the slow death of newspapers

I cancelled my San Francisco Chronicle subscription last week. When it came it was an easy decision - they had rolled over my annual subscription and upped my rate without telling me, so the phone call to cut off the paper was made as an annoyed consumer. Now, the morning after, the disappointed journalist in me has taken over and is feeling guilty.

I've made my living in print journalism and throughout my life, from childhood on, making a home has meant subscribing to the local paper. On one hand, I don't regret my decision. The Chronicle is a poor paper these days - its news selections are, well ... the polite description is quirky. The most significant national news is often buried. Its local news is inaccessible to someone who hasn't lived in the city for generations. It arrives with the front section encased in ads, arts sections and supplements, and almost all its photography is blurred. Any newspaper that can't sort out its photo registration these days has got some serious work to do.

But as luck would have it, my decision to cull the Chronicle came in a week of yet more desperate news for journalists and journalism. Another Los Angeles Times editor has fallen foul of management for wanting some money to be invested in news-gathering. Down in Australia, the Bulletin, a "larrikin" news magazine that has been a prominent voice of debate and irreverence since 1880, was shut down.

In both cases it was a bottom-line decision by management due to falling sales and advertising revenues. So far, so business. But journalism has never been just business. It is a messed-up, commercially-compromised, humanly-flawed, trivia-obsessed and utterly vital part of any democracy. When Eugene Meyer bought the Washington Post in 1933 he famously listed as a core principle that, "In the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifices of its material fortunes, if such course be necessary for the public good". As his grandson Don Graham, who now heads the Washington Post Company has said, "The Post is a business, and it is something more".

The Guardian is run along similarly noble lines. Such fourth estates sentiments are the reason so many of us in the print business have devoted our working lives to it, but they're getting harder to find. They've always clashed with the business of media ownership, but in recent years that ownership has changed. There are fewer Meyers - or Kerry Packers, the Australian owner of the Bulletin who was happy to wear its losses until he died in 2005. Increasingly media ownership is in the hands of global private equity, which places them in the death grip of quarterly profit margins. As one commentator in the Australian put it this week: "An American chief executive working for a Scottish boss who represents a Hong Kong private equity fund yesterday closed an Australian institution with a 128-year-old publishing history".

That American chief executive who closed the Bulletin, Scott Lorson, said that the magazine had been suffocated by the internet. As I write those words in this blog, I feel another twinge of guilt. And fear. Many of us, both writers and readers, have migrated online. We get our news and views in an instant, without having to pay a cover price or subscription fee. By choosing the cheap option, we're leaving print media high and dry. Los Angeles Times editor James O'Shea was sacked because he wanted a few million dollars to fund coverage of the Beijing Olympics and US presidential election. The Bulletin closed because it was losing nearly $4m a year. Still, that's small beer compared to the Chronicle, which is losing $1m a week. With classifieds already lost to the internet, most print news media just can't afford the loss of sales revenue as well.

We all hope that this is a time of transition for journalism, and there is a lot of good online media rising to keep us informed and engaged in issues that matter. But those who talk glibly about a simple switch of platforms from paper to screen, are missing the core business papers still do: news. Most of us writing for online publications rely utterly on the work of print journalists to break stories, bring us the news and inform our opinions. Some bloggers do break some stories. But few are full-time professionals spending their working lives nurturing and nagging sources, gathering facts, analyzing trends; that is, the hard work of news.

For all the buzz, citizen journalists are seldom committed to the daily grind of holding our institutions accountable in courtrooms, council meetings and far-flung corners of the world. Most of the original material online is still comment, not reportage. Or where it is reportage, it was supplied by someone who was also writing for a print publication.

The great danger is that as the internet takes the eyes and dollars away from print, the parasite is killing the host. If papers keep cutting their coverage of major events and magazines keep closing, we online readers, writers, and commenters will have had our eyes and ears removed. We will be left offering that most useless of things - ill-informed opinion. If that happens, the parasite will follow the host to its grave.

For all of us online, it's surely a question we should be wrestling with. I'm sure many of you, like me, still buy print. But if you and I are spending more and more time on sites such as this instead of buying other newspapers and magazines where we live, we've got our hands on the knife. Haven't we?

As the San Francisco Chronicle struggles on, here in the hub of the new media world, the other big media-related story of the week was that its executive editor Phil Bronstein had resigned and was moving to another position in the Hearst media organization. In an exit interview on radio, one women caller urged Bay Area locals to keep buying the paper, just as they supported independent bookshops, public radio and farmers' markets. That may be the new, niche model emerging, but I can't help taking those words as a tragic reflection of how far print media has fallen.

Me, I'm going out to buy a copy of the New York Times.

This post first appeared in the Guardian's Comment is Free section on January 29, 2008.