Sunday, January 25, 2009

The state of the paper

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
January 25, 2009
By Bill Kraus

In January of 2009, Madison’s Capital Newspapers ran a small item announcing that another 12 jobs had been eliminated, mostly in the newsroom.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune filed for bankruptcy.

The New York Times borrowed a lot of money from someone they once characterized as a Mexican drug lord and sold most of their headquarters building—so they could lease it back and have a place for their office and the money they spent to build it.

None of the papers whose troubles had been announced in 2008 did not say they were doing better. As a matter of fact, if you have a couple of bucks and want to own a newspaper you might talk to Sam Zell in Chicago or whoever answers the phone in Miami.

It goes without saying that what you would be buying is the right to lose money.

All of this is both deplorable and frightening. It is also predictable and uncorrectable.

The first sign that I saw that everything was not as it should be in the newspaper business was over 30 years ago when I was told that the then powerful Milwaukee Journal would not deliver their papers to me in Stevens Point anymore.

I asked why not. The answer was couched in more businesslike terms but came down to telling me that their mostly Milwaukee-based advertisers weren’t interested in displaying their merchandise to people in Stevens Point.

I suggested that by becoming a regional newspaper they were giving up power for money. I heard from another source that they didn’t disagree, but they didn’t change their decision to retrench either.

A few years later I was in the governor’s office and discovered that if a story appeared in either of the Milwaukee papers, but especially the morning Milwaukee Sentinel, that story would be on the governor’s agenda that day.

These papers still had 10 reporters covering state government, and the fact that no one in Stevens Point knew this or cared hadn’t registered in Madison. Yet.

It has now. The Sentinel is gone. The Journal Sentinel bureau is a shadow of its former self.

The power to set the public agenda has shifted to the likes of talk radio screamers who admit to being in some business other than journalism.

The information part of our working democracy is not working.

Thomas Jefferson said if you have to choose between the right to vote and a free and omnipresent press, choose the latter. Lee Dreyfus never worried about the peoples’ intelligence, just their knowledge, their information.

Both would be appalled about what has happened in January of 2009.

Everyone with the possible exception of the sanguine techies (*) is or should be as well.

* The techies believe the Internet supplants the press, blogging is journalism, and anyone addicted to the newspapers’ format can read them online. The facts are that the Internet is a marvelous resource but is like drinking out of fire hose as a news source, blogs are built on journalists’ reporting—as this one is—and the online editions will last only as long as the reporters do.

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