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Newspapers' troubles escalate in recession

Quest intensifies for new revenue streams, but solutions aren't in time to save some.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 17, 2009

In Seattle: Matt Kramer reads The Seattle Times. The Times' finances are wobbly, and for the Post-Intelligencer, the days seem numbered.

Elaine Thompson/AP

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It's the worst of times for the newspaper industry, and it's not the best time, either, for finding solutions amid a crisis of downsizings, bankruptcies, and closings.

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The steep recession, on top of a fundamental shift of readers from print newspapers to the Internet, has caused local papers' ad revenues to fall off a cliff. The Tucson Citizen is the latest to announce it will stop publishing if a buyer isn't found by March 21.

Plenty of ideas exist to develop new streams of revenue for the news business, such as a micropayment system like iTunes for a nickel-a-click read of an article or the creation of nonprofit news organizations to fulfill the traditional role of the fourth estate.

But the Project for Excellence in Journalism, in its "bleakest" assessment yet on the state of the media, says in a report released Monday that the industry must expand its search for solutions far beyond those revenue ideas because "no one source is a likely magic bullet."

"In the last year, the business model has deteriorated so quickly it's now 'man the battleships,' " says Mark Jurkowitz, the project's associate director.

Troubles at The Tucson Citizen are reflected across the industry. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is expected to print its last edition this week and may publish exclusively online, akin to a decision at The Christian Science Monitor to publish its daily edition online only. In Colorado, The Rocky Mountain News closed Feb. 27. The Chicago Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer are owned by bankrupt companies. Others, like the Miami Herald, are on the auction block. Indeed, the prospect of a "no-paper" town is a real one.

If the industry dreads that prospect, the public doesn't seem particularly perturbed. Just one-third of Americans say they'd miss reading their local newspaper, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press recently reported. Some 43 percent say civic life in their communities would be hurt "a lot" if the local paper ceased printing.

In an ironic twist, the rapid deterioration of the newspaper business is occurring even as the appetite for news is growing, at least online. The problem is that Web readers expect the content to be free of charge.

"In a world where you can get other [free] versions of most stories ... the question is: Is there sufficient incentive to click on a pay model?" says Bill Mitchell of the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit media research foundation in St. Petersburg, Fla.