WASHINGTON – When I was a young reporter in the 1970s, one of my assignments was covering the troubled U.S. steel industry, which was taking a beating from new technologies (so-called “mini-mills”), cheap imports and outdated union work rules. Thousands of steelworkers lost their jobs. Steel making was then considered the backbone of an advanced economy. It symbolized a nation’s power and technological stature.
To the men who worked the mills, the vulnerability of American steel makers was entirely unexpected and, in many ways, incomprehensible. I never imagined then — I doubt anyone did — that newspaper reporters and editors would become the steelworkers of the 21st century.
We are being overwhelmed by technological changes that we cannot control. Newspapers are being eclipsed as major social, economic and political institutions. The latest evidence of this is the sudden sale of The Washington Post, controlled by the Graham family since 1933, to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, for $250 million. There’s a transfer of status, prestige and power from the old to the new. Steel’s fate, its fall from industrial pre-eminence, is shared by newspapers.
This is hardly a secret. Newsrooms have become job graveyards. Employment, which peaked near 60,000, has dropped below 40,000 and is falling, reports the Pew Research Center. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Oregonian and Chicago Sun-Times recently announced layoffs. Our audiences and advertisers have fled to the Web or simply left. Newspapers’ revenues from print advertising have declined from $44.9 billion in 2003 to $18.9 billion in 2012, says Pew. Online revenues haven’t filled the gap. In 2012, they were $3.4 billion, about triple their 2003 level.
I watched uneasily as the Post mirrored these trends. You can’t sustain continuous large annual losses in print advertising revenue and daily circulation (down 14 percent and 8 percent, respectively, in 2012) and maintain a viable business. Still, the reckoning came earlier than expected. When someone emailed me news of the Bezos sale, my first reaction was: hoax. It was inconceivable that Don Graham, a fierce believer in the worth of independent journalism and (incidentally) a friend since college, would sell. Promoting and protecting the Post is who he is.
More selfishly, writing for the Post is who I am. I started as a Post reporter in 1969. My column has run in the paper since 1977, although I physically worked at magazines, mostly Newsweek. I returned to the Post newsroom in 2011 after the Post company sold Newsweek. Under the Grahams, journalism is more than a job; it’s a mission in truth-telling. This feeling is admittedly self-important and pretentious. Still, it’s real and now feels threatened.
I concede, I’m a dinosaur. I’ve got three manual typewriters at home awaiting the Internet’s collapse, which I would celebrate. I dislike it — and not just because it’s killing newspapers. As I’ve written before, it creates societal vulnerabilities (cyberattacks on crucial infrastructure, privacy invasions by business or government) that may outweigh its benefits, many of which — tweeting! — strike me as frivolous. Although this is a serious issue, you can’t argue with success, or failure. On its surveys, Pew asks respondents where they got their news the day before. In 2012, 39 percent answered the Web, including social media, up sharply from 2004′s 24 percent, the earliest data. Meanwhile, only 29 percent answered newspapers in 2012, down from 47 percent in 2000.
By these trend lines, the physical newspaper, which is still the industry’s main revenue source, is headed for history’s dustbin or, if not that, to boutique status. Forbes puts Bezos’ net worth at $25 billion. Graham argues that only someone like Bezos has the wealth, patience, technological aptitude and regard for newspapers’ importance to guide the Post from its storied past to a successful future. I confess that this argument initially seemed weak until my 26-year-old son called to see how I was holding up. Though commiserating with me, his message was: Hey, this could be good for the Post.
For years, the Post enjoyed a quasi-monopoly of largely captive readers and advertisers. Now it faces the Internet’s Darwinian hyper-competition. In text and video come torrents of news, information, analysis, advocacy, comedy and criticism. People do not lack for things to read, but the quality is spotty and often unreliable. Good journalism, though hardly perfect, strives to discredit misinformation and half-truths. Papers such as the Post contribute to a free society by undertaking the expensive reporting that others won’t — and which informs us of who we are.
But it’s not free. It rests on editorial independence — the ability to pursue stories no matter how inconvenient — and commercial success. Someone has to pay the bills. Bezos’ task is to respect editorial independence and restore its economic base. He has defied naysayers before. Maybe he will again. Good luck.
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group