No more monopolies: news and information — they’re everywhere

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“When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”-Dr. Samuel Johnson

Last Monday, the New York Post reported that the Ochs/Sulzberger family, which has controlled the New York Times for more than a century, might be forced to sell.

Noting that the Times Co. had recently borrowed $250 million from Mexican “vulture investor” Carlos Slim Helu, the Post opined that the family might be feeling the pain.

“Just four months ago,” the Post reported, “the family lost its biggest single source of steady cash from the company – a 92-cent annual dividend paying nearly $8 million on shares the family trust holds. The family’s stock fortune also crashed this year from a high of $411.5 million four years earlier to a low in February of just $30.8 million, rendering it virtually useless to borrow against or pledge in other money-making ventures.”

At last week’s Congressional hearings about the plight of newspapers, Google Vice President Marissa Meyer said that “it’s very early” to be worrying about the impending demise of the industry.

That, as Bill Clinton might have said, depends upon the definition of “early.” Five major American publishers have filed for bankruptcy during the last six months, putting the industry well ahead of one of its major advertisers – the domestic automobile industry.

Economists say that Americans will buy fewer than 9 million vehicles this year, down almost 50 percent from the industry’s high-water mark of 17.3 million during 2000. The newspaper industry shares Detroit’s pain.

During the same period, circulation at most big city dailies declined by as much as 40 percent, as did advertising revenue.

But there’s a difference between Detroit and the Detroit News.

One of these days, I’ll have to replace my 2002 Xterra – but buying a daily newspaper is a matter of choice, not necessity. For Detroit, the recession might end, but the News might not be around to chronicle it.

Doomsayers predict that quality reporting will die with the dailies. They claim that, absent the in-depth reporting that only financially healthy dailies can provide, local governments will become cesspools of corruption and nepotism, corporations will merrily pollute the environment, members of Congress will take bribes from lobbyists, banks will ignore regulators, government contractors will run amok – all those terrible things that, thank goodness, the fearless national dailies uncovered and prevented during the last decade!

The Woodward & Bernstein model of courageous, crusading reporters battling government cover-ups was never particularly accurate, but it created tens of thousands of J-school graduates who aspired to become courageous, crusading journos and get paid for it.

When they found out that reporting actually consists, as Cara Degette, my former editor at The Independent, put it, “of writing the 158th story about Jon Benet Ramsay and getting paid peanuts,” many of them decided to do things differently. They started/wrote for alternative weeklies, niche publications, Web publications or blogs.

New Year’s 1989. Colorado Springs had a single daily newspaper, The Gazette – and that was that. If The G didn’t cover it, and TV missed it, it didn’t happen.

Colorado Springs wasn’t unique.

Almost every American city had a single monopoly daily. And without exception they were extraordinarily profitable – fat, smug, happy businesses that never had to worry about competition.

If you want to believe that such businesses were true Keepers of the Flame, tirelessly investigating the corrupt, defending the weak and standing up to the powerful … well, go ahead and believe it.

New Year’s 2009. You want news? You got it! The Gazette’s former monopoly is, like Humpty Dumpty, shattered beyond repair.

If you’re a print junkie you can have The G – and the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times and the Denver Post delivered every day; the Indy on Thursday; and CSBJ in your mailbox on Friday.

Not enough?

Get on the Web, and visit us, or Sean Paige at Local Liberty Online, or those snarky liberals at the Colorado Independent (not to be confused with those snarky liberals at our Indy).

For aspiring journalists, national and international Web publications have become what metro dailies once were – the next step on a career path.

Degette now edits an online pub, the Colorado Lawyer, while Terje Langland works for Bloomberg in Tokyo, and Michael de Yoanna is a prize-winning contributor to Salon.

Local journalism isn’t dead – it’s livelier, more competitive and more relevant than ever. It’s in print, on the Web, in documentary films (Pete Schuerman’s “Haze”), on the radio and on TV. Print dailies have fallen off their unearned perch, and we’re the beneficiaries.

Great papers, like the New York Times, will survive – saved as much by the power of their brand as by the quality of their journalism.

Not that their journalism is bad – why, the Times was just awarded a Pulitzer for uncovering then-New York Gov. Eliot  Spitzer’s dalliance (choke! gasp!) with a prostitute.

Now that’s why you need real journalists – after all, we can’t depend only on the supermarket tabloids to tell us who’s having sex with whom …

John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.