Bearing Witness

June 1, 2007
Kevin Sack

Kevin Sack

Because fewer and fewer Americans read for their news, and because those who do see no reason to pay for content they can get for free, U.S. daily newspaper circulation has dropped from 62 million in 1990 to 53 million in 2005.

The most distressing part is that there seems to be absolutely no correlation between newspaper quality and newspaper circulation. Since 2000, my newspaper has won thirteen Pulitzer Prizes. And yet, over the same period, our Monday-Saturday circulation has declined by an astonishing 27 percent.

Of course declining circulation is only part of newspapering's problem. The rest has to do with the flight of advertising to the Web, the slowness of mainstream news organizations to adapt to new technologies, the corporatization of newsrooms, and the relentless pressure by shareholders for profits that bear no relationship to the public-service obligations of a free press.

One newspaper analyst recently calculated that, with the steady decline in newspaper shares, $13.5 billion in newspaper capital value had vaporized over the last two years.

The result? These days, we can literally see American newspapers shrinking. The Wall Street Journal began the year by cutting several inches off its width, and The New York Times and Los Angeles Times will soon follow. Advertising has replaced news on the section fronts of major newspapers. The impact of the budgetary squeeze on newsrooms and newsgathering has been profound. Editor and Publisher Magazine conservatively estimates that 2,100 newspaper jobs were lost in 2005 and another 1,000 in 2006.

If you think those reductions don't affect the quantity and quality of the news we report, think again. At a moment when world events have so much bearing, the number of foreign correspondents for U.S. newspapers has dropped by 25 percent in four years—from 188 in 2002 to 141 in 2006. Papers in my own chain, Tribune Company, have shuttered bureaus in Johannesburg, Moscow, London, Beijing, Beirut, and Islamabad, not that there's much news in any of those places.

Many papers, according to a recent story in The New York Times, are significantly trimming their Washington bureaus. If forced to predict, I would guess that investigative reporting will be next to feel the squeeze, as it is hugely expensive and speculative work.

To survive, newspapers are becoming increasingly localized. Robust local coverage is a good thing. But we are fast approaching the day when the Associated Press and The New York Times may be the only print organizations that comprehensively cover our country and our world.

It raises the question: Does anyone really think we need fewer eyes on our federal government right now, or on foreign affairs? Or on New Orleans?

I'm not arguing that newspaper reporters are more entitled than, say, textile workers to protection from technological advances. Like most journalists, I recognize that we live in a Darwinian world and that you either adjust to change or perish. Furthermore, I recognize that there are bigger threats to humanity than the loss of a few thousand newspaper jobs. Nuclear terrorism comes to mind, and catastrophic climate change.

But will we know as much, will we know enough, about those challenges and the hundreds of others, without a rigorous press that has the resources to dig for real truth and insight? And without all the information we can get, will we really have a fighting chance?

Therein lies the rub. At least for the moment, the new media has shown little interest in assuming the old media's mission of fully and fairly reporting the news. They are lazily and cynically and greedily satisfied to recycle and repackage the content produced by the real media, if I may be so bold. If Google and Yahoo and YouTube have any reporters risking their asses in Baghdad, I'm not aware of it.

The great irony of all this, it seems to me, is that in an age when we seem so hungry for information, we seem to have little appetite for fact, for truth, for context and balance. Someone needs to recognize that there is still a market for those values.

I recognize that the Internet, at its best, is a democratizing force that gives everyone a real voice. But blogs, from my observation, are mostly blather. They simply do not eliminate the need for fact-finding. And they certainly don't obviate the need for a professional press that, believe it or not, operates most of the time according to very stringent standards of accuracy and fairness.

And without sounding too elitist, the interactivity of today's technology, while positive in many ways, may give the reader a little too much say over what we publish. We know what you like, because we know what you read. We can measure the hits, every second. And if it will drive our ad rates up, we'll be happy, I'm sure, to give you all the Brangelina you can handle—and perhaps pull a reporter out of Somalia to do it.

What worries me is not just that newspaper reporters may have to adapt to survive. What really worries me is that the death of newspapers is also seriously threatening the health of journalism, at a time when we can ill afford it. If our democracy is to remain strong, someone must bear witness.