The nation's 15th largest newspaper, The Star Tribune of Minneapolis, filed for bankruptcy protection this week, another ink-stained victim of a dying business model and a more sane approach to credit terms.
Exactly how a city paper can rack up a $661.1 million debt before being wrestled like a suckling pig from the financing teat would itself be an interesting story, one that I would pay to read, although I'd prefer to get it for free online.
I'm especially fond of stories that include plot twists such as how the Star Tribune ended 2008 with $26.9 million but now has to sell its plasma to keep limping along. Hopefully, the daily will find a benefactor, as no one wants to see it become a crack whore, even if it became poor and needed the money.
"The Strib" joins a host of other old-school gazettes drowning in a deep pool of red ink after a storied history built on oceans of indigo. The Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and The Sun of Baltimore have all sought the shelter of bankruptcy protection. Several others could go tits up if they can't find buyers, like Denver's Rocky Mountain News, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
How did these giants of media end up holding out tin cups, begging for change? A good number of them borrowed huge sums of money when times were good and profits were high, and they are now experiencing difficulties repaying these loans as the economy has soured and revenue sources such as auto dealer advertising and classifieds have faltered.
With the sudden tightening of the credit markets resulting from the financial meltdown, there are few deep pockets available for the daily rags to dip into, and it's unlikely that anyone outside of Rupert Murdoch has the inclination to pump cash into a ship that's clearly listing to port, preparing for a final belly roll. It really is the perfect storm.
Subscribers are abandoning ship at a record pace as other information delivery options become available. Being able to read about breaking events on Google News moments after it happens instead of waiting for the morning paper to skid across my front porch reminds me of what it must have been like when folks in 1837 could first send a telegraph message across the country, thanks to Samuel Morse, instead of waiting for the stage coach to bring the mail sack.
Advertisers, witnessing the reader-rats deserting the boat, have significantly pared back both the amount of advertising space they want and the rates they are willing to pay, hitting newspapers where it hurts the most. Some estimates show a decrease of 23.4% in revenues since the industry had a record $49.4 billion in sales in 2005. Experts were anticipating a drop of $7.5 billion in 2008 alone.
Rather than some slow-motion, Sam Peckinpah gunfight ending, print journalism finds itself dying off quickly, like a dinosaur whose food supply and luxury condo were obliterated while he was out chasing a caveman down the street, past the Creationism Museum.
Will I miss newspapers? Probably, a little, mainly at breakfast in the morning, when I sit with the Columbus Dispatch and spend ten minutes on the headlines as I munch my faux sausage sandwich and Activia yogurt. Who knew that being able to easily poop soy products would be the highlight of my late 40s?
It's been interesting to watch the business react to the general lack of concern over their demise outside of the industry itself. There's been a lot of "you'll miss us when we're gone" talk, which doesn't seem like a value-add to me, and a good portion of what I do find valuable in my information addiction is already fed in binary fashion whenever I want. I don't want to see anyone lose their job or livelyhood, but I'm on my second career already and no one cried for me, Argentina.
So what will go away? Lots of paper, and machines, and supporting infrastructure, primarily. Will the research and analysis remain? I would hope so, because that's the real meat and potatoes of good journalism in the first place. If the news business doesn't have this immense aircraft carrier floating around that needs to be funded and supported, just so it can shoot little news jets off the catapaults once a day, good business sense dictates that they can marshal their thinned resources and dedicate them to developing robust content that can be delivered better, faster, and cheaper.
Will there be money for that? The future is unknown, but in other endeavors it's been shown that people are willing to pay for a quality product and lose interest when the offering is shoddy. Ask GM. The revenue stream may not be entirely funded by consumers any longer, but that doesn't mean there will be no funds. Seth Godin has some ideas in his blog:
Punchline: if we really care about the investigation and the analysis, we'll pay for it one way or another. Maybe it's a public good, a non profit function. Maybe a philanthropist puts up money for prizes. Maybe the Woodward and Bernstein of 2017 make so much money from breaking a story that it leads to a whole new generation of journalists.
Slap a nice HP touchscreen PC on the kitchen island and let me have the same morning routine, except instead of wire reports I'm perusing my RSS aggregator, and I won't miss a step. Not having to drag the stack of newsprint out with the recycling every week has a certain appeal, and being a computer engineer, I'm not worried that I'll be starved for news if my touchscreen breaks down. I have redundancy!
I won't be able to wrap a fish in the Internet, or line a bird cage, but my yellowfin tuna comes from the monger pre-wrapped, and I hate birds. Impermanence is everywhere. It's print journalism's turn.