What newspaper history says about newspaper future.

Media criticism.
Jan. 28 2006 3:00 PM

Not Just Another Column About Blogging

What newspaper history says about newspaper future.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

Six months ago, I stumbled upon a brilliant 16,241-word paper about press consolidation, and it didn't occur to me until this week, while attending yet another blogger conference, how to spin it into a column.

The whale was written by Elizabeth MacIver Neiva for the spring 1996 issue of Harvard Business School's Business History Review, and it's titled "Chain Building: The Consolidation of the American Newspaper Industry, 1953-1980." To the best of my knowledge it's never been cited in the popular press.

The paper isn't online, but the speed-metal, five-page version is. To summarize Neiva's summary, she looks at the consolidation of the newspaper industry over the aforementioned 27-year period, when the number of dailies independently owned by families fell from 1,300 to 700. (There were 1,785 dailies in 1953.) She finds three entrepreneurs who capitalized on three of the external changes in the market that were responsible for the trend. They are Prescott Low of the Quincy, Mass., Patriot Ledger, whoseized on electronic typesetting; Lloyd Schermer of the Missoula, Mont., Missoulian, who broke labor union hegemony; and Paul Miller of Gannett, who exploited IRS-mandated changes in estate-tax appraisal.

According to Neiva, newspaper technology remained stable in the 70 years before the post-WWII era, with the "massive, noisy mechanical contraption called a Linotype machine" that had more than 10,000 moving parts and took as much skill to operate as a nuclear power plant (my hyperbole, not Neiva's) dominating newspaper production. Then postwar inflation and the end of wage freezes sent publishers searching for ways to cut costs.

In 1953, Low of the Patriot Ledger placed his bet on a newfangled photocomposition device—the Photon—that set type on film instead of lead, did it six times faster, and did it tons cheaper. By 1956, the Patriot Ledger had fully integrated the Photon into its operation. This allowed Low to replace skilled workers with the unskilled, who could set more type in less time at much less cost, eventually displacing "a method of production that newspapers had been using for nearly a hundred years."

Strong trade unions kept photocomposition machines out of many pressrooms, fearing correctly that they would destroy jobs. Schermer's only alternative to photocomposition machines was bankruptcy, so he outwitted the unions with a negotiation strategy that got the machines into his newspaper on his terms, not theirs. To simplify the story, other publishers imitated Schermer, and by the early 1980s many had routed the unions and become hugely profitable.

Family-owned newspapers celebrated their new profitability until the IRS started appraising newspapers by their soaring market values instead of their assets. In the 1960s and 1970s, gift and inheritance taxes stood at about 70 percent, Neiva writes, and under the new IRS rules most newspaper heirs didn't have the cash to pay the new tax bill. Paul Miller of Gannett helped aging owners and their heirs dodge the IRS by trading shares in Gannett for their papers, building the chain out to 79 papers by the time he retired in 1979. Other chains imitated Gannett, accelerating newspaper consolidation.

This is where blogs come in. The union-destroying technology Neiva describes continued to evolve, reducing newspaper costs. Ultimately, the technology trickled down to individual desktops in the form of affordable personal computers. When the Web arrived in the mid-1990s as an alternative publishing system, big media organizations and other well-funded entities were the only ones that could afford to build high-traffic, fancy Web sites.

As John Battelle points out, the prices of hardware, software, and bandwidth have fallen so dramatically in the last six years that the Web has experienced a "second coming," which he and others call "Web 2.0." Writing in the New York Times (Nov. 18, 2005), Battelle notes that one can "lease a platform that can handle millions of customers for less than $500 a month. In the 90's, such a platform would have run tens of thousands of dollars or more a month." Here's another astonishing marker: The price of one gigabyte of hard-disk storage has dropped from about $9 in October 2000 (nominal terms) to about 45 cents (retail) or less today. And it's not just a matter of falling prices but of who is catching the technology as it falls: individuals and institutions that couldn't afford the spiffy technologies only moneyed corporations could afford previously.

Battelle extols what a new business can accomplish with $200,000 that would have taken millions just six years ago. If you combine Neiva's findings with Battelle's argument, you can make the case that the next entrenched "guild" that technology is likely to bulldoze is the "newspaper guild." I'm not speaking of the union of the same name, but of those who work in the news business—reporters, editors, publishers, radio and TV broadcasters, etc.

Like the long-gone typesetters, today's newspaper guild members believe that their job is somehow their "property," and that no amateur can step in to perform their difficult and arduous tasks. On one level, they're right. John Q. Blogger can't fly to Baghdad or Bosnia and do the work of a John F. Burns. But what a lot of guild members miss is that not everybody wants to read John F. Burns, not everybody who wants to read about Baghdad is going to demand coverage of the quality he produces, and not everybody wants Baghdad coverage, period. If you loosely define journalism as words and graphics about current events deliverable on tight deadline to a mass audience, the price of entry into the craft has dropped to a few hundred dollars. Hell, I can remember renting an IBM Selectric for $100 a month in the late 1970s just to make my freelance articles look more "professional" to my editors.

So, when newspaper reporters bellyache about shoot-from-the-hip bloggers who don't fully investigate the paper trail before writing a story or double-check their facts before posting, they're telling a valuable truth. Bad bloggers are almost as bad as bad journalists. But the prospect of a million amateurs doing something akin to their job unsettles the guild, making it feel like Maytag's factory rats whose jobs were poached by low-paid Chinese labor.

It's not just the best of the blogosphere drawing away big audiences that the guild need worry about. If Chris Anderson's Long Tail intuitions are right, the worst of the blogosphere—if it's big enough—presents just as much (or more) competition. Michael Kinsley made me laugh a decade ago when he argued against Web populists replacing professional writers, saying that when he goes to a restaurant, he wants the chef to cook his entree, not the guy sitting at the next table. I'm not laughing anymore: When there are millions of aspiring chefs in the room willing to make your dinner for free, a least a hundred of them are likely to deal a good meal. Mainstream publishers no longer have a lock on the means of production, making the future of reading and viewing anybody's game. To submit a tortured analogy, it's like the Roman Catholic Church after Gutenberg. Soon, everyone starts thinking he's a priest.

I'm not about to predict what the collapsing cost of media creation will ultimately do to the news business, if only because my track record at prophecy is terrible. But this much I know: The newspaper guild (again, reporters, editors, publishers) can't compete by adding a few blogs here, blogging up coverage over there, and setting up "comment" sections. If newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters don't produce spectacular news coverage no blogger can match, they have no right to survive.

But instead of improving their product by deploying technology bloggers can't afford (yet), newspapers are devolving. Many are cutting staff. Daily newspapers are growing smaller and uglier, with no paper looking anywhere near as lovely as Joseph Pulitzer's New York Worldfrom the late 1800s. Comic strips have gotten so tiny you need a magnifying glass to read them. I'm fine with newspapers cutting back on stock tables, but they aren't adding something new to the package. Most newspapers claim they've shrunk their dimensions to combat steep increases in newsprint prices, but that's a lie.

What else do I want? I want a daily newspaper that looks as good as Vogue but smells like a cinnamon bun instead of perfume. I want smarter newspaper headlines. I want a Mike Royko in every daily newspaper. I want editorials signed by people, so I know who to yell at. I want newspapers to restore editorial cartoonists to their place of honor instead of eliminating them. To broaden the answer, I want the newsmagazines to give me a better reason to read them than remixes of the last four days' news cycle, and I want them to look like Harry N. Abrams' coffee-table books.

I want Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to straighten out the production problems at the Washington-area plant that prints the New York Times so it arrives on my doorstep more reliably. I also want more for my Times subscription than TimesSelect and its stingy 100 "free" searches a month from the archives, its News Tracker, and the paper's columnists.

And that's just for starters. If my fellow guild members want to save their jobs, they'd best meet my needs.

Afterthought: It should go without saying that the creative destruction Mr. Craig Newmark has wrought on the newspaper industry's $15 billion classified ad market with his good idea and a cluster of cheap computer servers illustrates the sort of dislocations in store for the editorial side of publications.

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I'd also like a rare steak, a baked potato, and a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Does salad come with that? Send your newspaper wants and needs to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Don't tell me what you don't want. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.