“Our republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know right and the courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery.”
This time each year Columbia University hands out Pulitzer Prizes for the best journalism in America. And as surely as the swallows return to Capistrano, Will Moredock leads his next column with some corny joke about being passed over yet again by the Pulitzer selection committee.
Well, relax, dear readers. No jokes this year. With the condition of American newspapers, there is nothing to laugh about. The newspaper industry is becoming as grim as hospice care. There is little we can do except watch these fine old institutions wither away, perhaps toast them when they are gone, and wonder what the world is going to be like without them.
Two major metro dailies, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News have folded in the last two months. The Boston Globe may be the next to say “goodbye.”
Around the nation newspapers are cutting their staffs to the bone — and then cutting deeper. The Post and Courier and The State newspaper in Columbia have each undergone a major round of layoffs since the beginning of the year. In the case of The State, one of the victims was Robert Ariail, that paper’s wonderful political cartoonist and two-time Pulitzer finalist.
And that brings up another sore subject. The Pulitzer Prize was created in 1917, and since then only one journalist or newspaper in South Carolina has ever received the honor even though the number of categories honoring journalists has been expanded to 14. That journalist was Robert Lathan, editor of The News and Courier, predecessor of today’s Post and Courier, and he received the award in 1924 for his editorial, “The Plight of the South.”
It was a short piece of work — fewer words than this column — and that was the high-water mark of journalism in South Carolina.
The awarding of the Pulitzers last week was an occasion for both celebration and introspection.
The New York Times picked up five medallions, and the very next day reported a first-quarter net loss of $74.5 million.
The Pulitzer Board awarded the prize for local reporting to the Detroit Free Press for obtaining the sexually explicit text messages which brought down the city’s mayor; it also awarded a prize for local reporting to Ryan Gabrielson and Paul Giblin of the East Valley Tribune of Mesa, Ariz., for a five-part investigative series on the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department. What the board did not know at the time was that Giblin had already left the Tribune, one of the 46 editors, reporters, photographers and graphic designers laid off in January from the editorial department.
As for the venerable Detroit Free Press, on March 30 it cut back weekday home delivery to Thursday and Friday, redesigned the paper, and reduced it to 32 pages.
The future of the newspaper industry is all about doing more with less. But, of course, there comes a time when you are simply doing less with less and the public is the worse for it. Democracy is the worse for it.
The crisis in the newspaper industry has been a long time coming. Thirty years ago industry leaders warned that young people were not getting into the newspaper habit as generations before them had. And then came the internet, the greatest instrument of social change since the movable-type press, and the newspaper industry was caught utterly flat-footed and clueless. Today, not only are readers moving from the printed page to cyberspace, but so are advertisers. And advertising is the lifeblood of newspapers.
Most newspapers today have some kind of online extension. Since its printing press shut down and its delivery trucks stopped rolling last month, the Post-Intelligencer has gone entirely online. The problem is that the online business model does not support a traditional ink-and-paper news organization. Online advertising is worth about a tenth of printed advertising.
The Pulitzer Prize Board is aware of the changing times and is changing to meet them. In the past it has allowed online supplements to print exhibits for competition. This year for the first time the competition was expanded to include online-only news organizations such as Salon.com.
But opening online news and opinion to receive journalism’s highest award does not change the fact that metropolitan daily newspapers seem to be going the way of the dinosaur and there is nothing on the horizon to replace them. We may soon be in for a civics lesson none of us wants to be a part of.