March 27, 2009
Editor’s note: The following essay was written by the late John Walter, who served as executive editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was a founding editor of USA Today. A few months after Walter died due to complications from surgery last September, his wife, Jan Pogue, found this essay on his computer. With her permission, Poynter has reprinted an edited version of it here.
By John Walter
I read today that big-city newspapers are dead. Well, actually, I didn’t read it. I heard it from my friend George, who read it in a blog referencing a St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times article about the topic.
The fact that newspapers are dying discourages me; I will miss the sound of the blue bag hitting the porch, even though it hasn’t hit the porch anytime recently. The carrier stopped porch delivery long ago, and for a while the blue bag had been hitting the stones at the end of the driveway.
Of course, the blue bag hasn’t been hitting the stones at the end of the driveway for a couple of weeks now; I canceled my subscription. This was because I discovered that I foolishly had been paying full price for a home-delivered subscription and didn’t know that if you started a new subscription, you actually got 50 percent off for 12 weeks. So, we canceled our subscription and then started it up again, and had 12 good weeks at 50 percent off.
Then I called to cancel my subscription at the end of the 12 weeks, and they said they really didn’t want to lose me as a customer, so I could have another 12 weeks at 75 percent off, and I realized what a fool I had been to take the paper for 50 percent off.
So I signed up for 12 weeks at 75 percent off, and when those 12 weeks ended, I called up to cancel, and they said, sorry, they weren’t offering the 75 percent off subscription anymore, but I could have the Wednesday through Sunday papers for the same price that I had been paying for the full week at 75 percent off, so I took that for another 12 weeks.
Then, just the other week, when they said I now had to pay full price again for whatever subscription I wanted — Sundays only, or five weekdays, or Thursday and Monday, whatever — I said the hell with it. So there hasn’t been any blue bag in the driveway now for several weeks, except, of course, on Easter, when the paper gives free copies to apparently anybody with a driveway.
When we were growing up, it never occurred to anybody that newspapers weren’t meant to go on forever, and it never occurred to anybody to think of them, like cars and stereos and Wonder White Bread, as consumer products that could outlive their usefulness and become, well, old and dead. But now that seems to be what has happened.
So newspapers are going to go out of business. Journalism will survive, no doubt, but we’ll just have to figure out the economics of it as we go along. Some of it will be painful, and some of the business people who are buying the big newspaper companies these days will undoubtedly help figure out the way.
But big metro newspapers themselves? They are out of here. I want to say that there are three people in the world responsible for their demise, and — because I have always loved newspapers, even when they weren’t on my porch or in my driveway — I want to say I’m mad at them about it. And, therefore, I want to record for posterity who they are, and why we should be mad at them.
First, there is A.J. Liebling. He is responsible because on Feb. 18, 1949, he wrote a famous column in The New Yorker called “Toward a One-Paper Town.” In this column he called attention to the fact that the number of newspapers in New York was dwindling, and that competition among newspapers was becoming a thing of the past.
At the time he wrote it, there were at least 10 cities in America with three or more newspapers each, and many more cities beyond that with two newspapers — one in the morning and one in the evening.
These newspapers more or less competed with one another (although some of them were owned by the same company), and it was a healthy thing. A reporter for The Middletown Blat-Times would be at a city council meeting, as well as a reporter for The Middletown News-Press. If the reporter from the News-Press fell asleep at the meeting and missed the debate about the relocation of the city landfill, then he at least stood the chance of being embarrassed by the fact that the next day the Blat-Times seemed to have been at the meeting he had missed.
But once the Blat-Times went out of business (actually, it merged with the News-Press and became The Middletown Blat-Times-News-Press), there was no other reporter at the meeting to embarrass the fellow about the fact that he fell asleep, and this was bad for newspapers.
Liebling was responsible for this merger mania because it was possible to extrapolate from his column that in many of the American cities where competition still existed, it really wasn’t a close race at all; the dominant newspapers were the ones getting the ads and readers, and it was inevitable that the second and third newspapers in those towns were going to die.
The existence of these monopolies was a first step in making newspapers as dull as dog poop because when they became monopoly papers there was no chance of offending anyone, and they became bland. Plus, they had too many comic strips because the surviving papers absorbed all the comics from the competition, and now they had three pages of comics and all of them were printed too small.
So Liebling is the first one who killed newspapers.
This was in the late 1960s, when newspapers were still fairly individualistic and didn’t all look like they came out of the same meat grinder.
There was, for example, the Chicago Tribune, whose front-page format had not changed in 50 years, and always, every morning, consisted of one large headline in two-inch-high type, and then eight columns of skinny, one-column headlines, wedged around a color cartoon of striking imbecility.
And there was the San Francisco Chronicle, which had large headline type, too, and a sports section printed on green paper and a classified section printed on bright yellow paper. It also had lots of quirky short stories from around the world, printed in boxes with squiggly lines around them.
When you saw the squiggly lines, you knew you were in for a treat, a hilarious story about the one-eyed sloth from Madagascar that had been bitten by a local resident and died in spite of a blood transfusion. And so on. In those days, individuality ruled, in both look and content of the papers.
Well, in the middle of this individuality came the layout editor, who one day decided that though newspapers had been printing stories in vertical columns for 200 years, there was no particular reason to do so, and he took out his line gauge and talked to the people in the composing room — who thought he was crazy — and laid out his newspaper full of horizontal rectangles. Stories stretched over four columns, or even five, with lots of white space thrown in. [Editor's note: Though others were involved, Ed Arnold was a key figure in this change, which he discussed in a Society of News Design interview (PDF) in 2000.]
And suddenly people were saying the Courier-Journal was one of the best-looking papers in America. “Just like a magazine!” everybody said. And, just like that, newspapers started to abandon the ugly, hodgepodge look of their vertical columns and went into the magazine business.
They lost, thereby, a sense of urgency, and the thing that made them look like, well, newspapers. And it got worse; eventually layout editors were replaced by something called design directors, and design directors took to running pictures of large vegetables, first in black and white and later in color, and newspapering went all soft and squishy as hell.
So that is why that layout editor is the second person responsible for the death of newspapers.
Then there is Al Neuharth, who was general manager of the Rochester, N.Y., newspapers when I worked there in the late 1960s. Soon after that he was head of the Gannett chain of newspapers, which had recently gone public.
Neuharth was a super-slick salesman of the first rank (I say that with absolute affection and admiration; I myself had two or three long and happy careers at Gannett), and pioneered the idea that a public newspaper company could show increased earnings every quarter and result in Wall Street loving you.
He achieved a remarkable string of quarters with increased earnings; I think the string ran up to 22 or more. He did it by buying new newspapers until Gannett owned dozens and dozens of them. He applied tough financial constraints on their budgets and got them to contribute to this ever-increasing bottom line.
It was brilliant, it made perfect sense, and — particularly if you were going to retire in time — it carried no threat of ever having to face the day when maybe there wasn’t going to be any more growth, a day when Wall Street wasn’t going to love you.
Soon everyone wanted to imitate Neuharth, and almost every newspaper company in America went public. The public companies gobbled up more and more papers and created more and more monopolies and stretched their earnings to 20 or 30 percent and … we know the end of this story. So Neuharth is the third person responsible for killing newspapers.
This morning I heard that Sam Zell, the new owner of the once-mighty Tribune Company, says he doesn’t know much about the newspaper business yet, but will know the business inside and out by the time he’s done.
Memo to Zell: To know the business, start by reading up on the three guys above. Newspapers are dying. Journalism will go on, but the thing in the blue bag is over. These guys did it.