Craigslist killed the newspaper

In 1979, British pop band The Buggles announced to the world that Video Killed the Radio Star. The song went on not only to be a hit, but also to be both the first video ever played on MTV (1981) and the one-millionth video played on the same channel (2000). Amid the synthesized drones of a Roland keyboard, the prophetic lyrics told the world, “we can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far.” So it would seem today for newspapers in the Internet age.

On March 17th, 2009, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer quit publishing a print edition. Unlike another long time paper to go down recently, The Rocky Mountain News, the P-I, as it is called, continues to be an online publication, giving readers what they want in a cheaper form.

The paper had started publishing in 1863 when Seattle was a frontier town with few connections to the civilised world. The scrappy publication outlived 20 competitors between its founding and the dawn of the 20th century, but it is no longer a “newspaper” in the classic sense today. The story of The P-I’s past glory and its fade to black was detailed in the final issue, “Cause of death -- a fatal economic spiral compounded by dwindling subscription rates, an exodus of advertisers and an explosion of online information.”

On April 23rd, 1859, The Rocky Mountain News began publishing in Denver. On February 27th 2009, the paper published its last edition, just 55 days shy of its 150th birthday. The Rocky’s story of demise admits that the Internet is largely to blame but it is not just due to free news available online 24/7, “the phenomenon that has seen the Internet siphon off once-lucrative pieces of the business, such as classified advertising.”

Craigslist killed the newspaper, period.

In Denver, The Rocky Mountain News and their competitor The Denver Post, went from splitting a classified business worth $100 million dollars annually, to watching Craigslist, Kijiji and other free online services, scoop up their bread and butter.

The trouble in the media world is hardly restricted to the United States. In Canada, CanWest Global, the country’s largest newspaper owner and owner of a major television network, is teetering on the brink of collapse; a collapse that would have an international impact. Beyond potentially killing off major daily newspapers such as The Ottawa Citizen or National Post, CanWest has an international reach as owner of ten networks and EYE media in Australia, a host of Turkish radio stations and is the main partner in the company that produces the hit TV series CSI.

While CanWest’s problems originate with a series of bad management decisions and an irresponsibly high mountain of debt, the economic downturn and collapse of ad revenue has resulted in the company having to negotiate extensions on its credit lines just to stay alive.

It would be pleasant to think that the ad revenue for CanWest, The Seattle P-I and other struggling media companies would simply bounce back when the economy recovers, but that is unlikely. The economic downturn is likely just speeding up an overdue weeding out process in the media world. Television executives in America and Canada have been telling legislators that the current economic model of broadcasting is broken, that due to the same factors that are hurting newspapers, including a loss of audience to the Internet, their past modus operandi will have to change.

Why should any of us care about the demise of media companies?

Well aside from my personal and pronounced interest (like the fact that they pay my salary), there is the idea that these companies, the ones who invest in news, do provide a public service.

Fewer voices in American media are as respected, and at the same time as reviled, as The New York Times. The Times is a family run business, a respected newspaper, a bastion of liberal orthodoxy and teetering, much like the less glorious CanWest. The reasons are almost identical; bad management, a shrinking audience resulting in fewer advertisers and a mountain of debt. Would America and the wider world of journalism be poorer without the old Grey Lady as the Times is often called?

The New Republic recently asked this question citing a study from Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism as part of their answer. In an analysis of news coverage between newspapers and television, the study showed that the breadth of our news would shrink, “as of 2006 a typical metropolitan paper ran seventy stories a day, counting the national, local, and business sections (adding in the sports and style sections would bring the total closer to a hundred), whereas a half-hour of television news included only ten to twelve.”

“Well there’s always the Internet, Brian!” True, and since I’m writing for an online journal, it would be foolish to discount the power of online media. But can MercatorNet replace The New York Times, National Post, Sydney Morning Herald, or Telegraph? Those organizations put reporters in the field to sort and check facts, and find stories. Google News is a great service, but they still link to stories started and published by newspapers or print wire services that also deliver content online.

There is a wonderful amount of opinion and analysis online but what will we all be pontificating on if there are no people in the field digging up stories?

Sites like Daily Kos and individual bloggers like Michelle Malkin offer the great spectacle of partisan jousting and often dig up facts either missed or ignored in the dreaded oldline media. Still, I would never want to rely on either one for a fair and honest assessment of the day’s news. Does anyone really think Kos will give Republicans a fair shake or that Malkin will offer a balanced view of the latest Democratic policy?

The fact is, the world still needs journalism and that requires media outlets that will employ them, that will put real resources into looking behind the curtain that powerful interests like to draw, hiding their dirty laundry from public eyes. What form these media outlets will take in the coming years is up for grabs. Will the ink stained pages survive or will we all be facing a pixelated news world within five years? That question remains to be answered but the important thing is that we have robust media outlets.

My own industry, radio, went through a transformation a generation ago. It continues to thrive, albeit in a much different form than we saw through the 50s, 60s and 70s. Today newspapers once again face the challenge of technology. Let’s hope for our sake, they get it right.

Brian Lilley is the Ottawa Bureau Chief for radio stations CFRB 1010 in Toronto and CJAD 800 Montreal. He is also Associate Editor of Mercatornet. Read Brian’s blog on Canadian politics here.


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