When a newspaper dies, “a voice is stilled.” That was the headline in the Cincinnati Post Dec. 30, the day before the newspaper’s presses were silenced. Corporate owner E.W. Scripps closed both the Cincinnati Post and its cousin, the Kentucky Post.
In their day, they were great, ornery, cantankerous papers fearing and favoring none:
Vance Trimble, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Kentucky Post in the 1960s and ’70s, explain[ed] his newspaper’s editorial philosophy this way: “Everybody could get in the paper, and nobody could stay out.” [emphasis added]
That applied to Mr. Trimble, too. When he was arrested on a drunk-driving beef, the paper ran a photo of the editor behind bars the next day. Now, that was a newspaper I can admire.
But should this be RIP, Cincy Post â€” or good riddance?
Old newspaper folks such as me may find it disheartening to see newspapers â€” as I know them â€” die. When that happens, more than a single voice is stilled, we cry shrilly.
In Chicken Little language, we argue that all the people in all the stories written by all the reporters over the nearly 127 years of the Cincy Post may live in an old, dusty newsroom morgue somewhere, but no new voices will emerge in that same forum.
Economics killed the two Posts. They were lucky to live as long as they did. They had survived only through a 30-year joint operating agreement between Scripps and Gannett Co. That JOA expired; Gannett did not want to renew. As afternoon newspapers, they had been on life support for three decades. By last year, they had achieved only a 4 percent market penetration. Thus their demise.
That gives new meaning, however, to the notion of “stilled voices.” As much as old eye-shade journos like me may lament the passing of an era, we must remember that we are (or have been) journalists. That means we have to ask the basic question: What does the demise of the two Posts mean?
For many residents of southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, probably not much. The Cincinnati Enquirer continues to serve the region as does the Kentucky Enquirer. E.W. Scripps Co. and WCPO-TV, also owned by Scripps, launched a new Web site, http://www.kypost.com. The former readers of the Posts, it appears, may find their ability to find news and information adequate â€” print coverage has been supplanted, if not replaced, by Web-only coverage from Scripps.
Is this a model portending the future of newspapers? I don’t know. There’s no clear sign that this represents a fundamental change in the corporate business model operating in journalism today â€” maximize shareholder income. The role of large institutional investors in corporate ownership of media has not changed.
As we’ve seen for nearly a decade, corporate owners have sought to shed costs through cutting staffs and, of late, curtailing circulation both geographically and demographically. It seems only logical that the corporate mantra of cut, cut, cut reach the next sacrificial plateau â€” ink and newsprint, as in the case of the Posts.
But increasingly, readers have more choices than they did 10 years ago.
Although the United States still is in decline in high-speed broadband penetration nationally (and in rural areas in particular), Internet access has increased substantially from the days a decade ago that many newspapers first considered toying with online news operations. (Sen. Hillary Clinton’s bill to increase rural broadband has been parked in committee for nearly a year.)
Blogs have risen to become a potent segment of, if not news-gathering, news interpretation and analysis (and an incredible amount of crap).
Readers can find news online. Don’t like The New York Times’ coverage of Russian elections? Read Prava in English. Don’t like The Washington Post‘s coverage of bird flu in Pakistan? Read the Pakistan Sun.
YouTube has become a cultural icon of independent reporting (and, oftentimes, self-delusion and utter stupidity). But it is an information choice.
Corporate media ownership will try to make money in this environment. The demise of the Posts shows that even ink and paper can be cut. But the corporate economic mindset â€” do not invest in better journalism that is more saleable than the current product â€” is unlikely to change soon.
What the Internet cannot immediately replace for some readers of the Posts, and what corporate ownership gleefully sacrifices, is the news closest to the readers â€” local issues, events and personalities. How’d the high school football team do? How much will property taxes rise and why? Where’s the school lunch menu? I heard a Wal-Mart’s coming to town.
Home-town newspapers may fold to be replaced by broad regional Internet monopolies such as those in which a corporate-owned TV station joins with a former dead-tree corporate cousin.
But local journalism must survive. The closer to home news occurs, the more meaningful it is to people. The day may come, as I’ve suggested, that the home-town paper may become the home-town Web site supported by subscriptions and advertising.
Meanwhile, anticipate a Post-like fate for more small, underperforming (by corporate economic standards) newspapers. Their demise may save trees, but social and cultural costs will follow. A craven new world may be coming for the journalism closest to you.
[photo credits: -30-, Amie Dworecki, The Cincinnati Enquirer; Taft headline, The Cincinnati Post]