Monday, January 26, 2009


Ads like this have disappeared over the years- and so have the nation's daily newspapers...

Monday morning, when my Golden Retriever, Max, trotted up the front steps with The Albany Herald gently gripped in her mouth, I was amazed at what she brought me. Only one section- 14 pages total. Two pages of sports. No letters to the editor (and none on most days anymore). Classified? Three pages. As for news- the justification for the name "newspaper?" Only about two and a half pages, if you discounted the ads and fluff like celebrity gossip and astrology scattered among the Associated Press stories. In a year, maybe two, this paper will be dust- a distant memory, as its advertisers and readers have fled en masse in recent years, and as they continue to dwindle.

I like newspapers. And if you are reading this, then the odds are great that you like them, too. I started reading them as a kid, although I probably spent more time on the funnies than anything else. Once upon a time I had to wait for the morning paper to find out who won or lost a game the day before and to keep current on local, state, and national news. That is one of the beauties of newspapers- they have something for everyone. Sports, comics, Dear Abby, bridge, editorials, even a nugget or two of news that didn't show up on television or the internet.

When I travel around the United States, I always make it a point to pick up a local paper. One can absorb the flavor of a community by reading local letters to the editor, finding out what subjects are ticking them off, and how eloquently (or not) they express their opinions.

But those days are ever more swiftly receding, just as sail was replaced by steam, the horse and buggy by the newfangled automobile, vinyl by CD, then I-Pod, and dialup by high speed. Daily newspapers are dying off, don't you know. In the last 50 years, most big and medium sized cities have gone from having competition among several newspapers, with cities having both morning and afternoon papers, some with several editions, down to two or even one. And soon there will be none in many cities.

Philadelphia had the Bulletin and the Inquirer. Only the Inquirer has survived. Atlanta had the morning Constitution and the afternoon Journal. It's one paper now. A couple of years ago the Atlanta Journal-Constitution stopped home delivery and rack sales south and east of Macon. Notable high profile papers like the Los Angeles Times, The Detroit Free Press, The Rocky Mountain News, The Chicago Tribune, and yes, even the New York Times have fallen on hard financial times, and there's some question as to which of them will fold or radically downsize (the Free Press is going to only a few paper editions a week with the rest of the days being found only online).

Although papers have tried to survive by evolving, to become hipper, to add on-line editions, they've also become radically downsized, literally, with fewer pages, smaller pages, and less ink on the pages. Major advertisers have pulled or greatly reduced their ads. Classified sections are shrinking as more people use on-line classifieds that cost little or nothing.

Reporters are a dying breed, and many local papers are doing something similar to what local stations did by replacing live dj's with satellite radio. They're laying off human beings and simply printing what comes off the AP wire- and it isn't even a "wire" anymore, it's delivered instantly via computer. Unfortunately for papers, these days any Tom, Dick or Harriet can get the same thing at home by touching a key on the computer or on the move with their Blackberry.

So what have we lost- and what will we lose when most Americans don't have a local daily paper? A sense of community, for one thing. A cogent analysis of local stories and events for another. Comprehensive coverage of local government, which is essential for representative democracy. Years ago the People's Forum was a vibrant daily compendium of numerous contentious letters, some from various regular contributors carrying on debates that lasted for weeks or months. Where will that concourse of ideas and exchange of opinions occur, read by thousands in the same community, if not in a local newspaper?

I've had bones to pick with the Herald over the years. I've complained about occasional shoddy reporting. I used to characterize their news reports of cases I tried as the three blind men describing an elephant. I became more than tired of their dismal right wing editorials, many of which contained tripe from fabricators and fabulists. But I'll miss it when it's gone, and I think most of you will, too.


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