April 4, 2009
In Tuesday's edition, the News Leader announced that they will shut down their printing presses this month, and outsource that job to the Harrisonburg Daily News Record. The last edition to be printed here in Staunton will be April 13. This will result in the loss of eight full-time jobs and 15 part-time jobs.
The current recession is the immediate cause of this decision, not surprisingly, as advertisement revenues are way down. I happened to look in the classified section of the Washington Post a few days ago, and was startled to find that most of it was taken up by "trustee sale" notices, i.e., sales of homes in which the mortgage was foreclosed. That's pretty scary.
The underlying cause of the demise of the newspaper industry is the decline in readership among younger people. Few people under thirty bother to buy a newspaper anymore, let alone take the time to actually scan one quickly. They get their "news" from blogs and other Internet news sources, of widely varying reliability. Plus, functional literacy is way down, and not many people in their twenties can digest the serious prose and big, multi-syllabic words contained in newspaper articles. OMG!
One of the side-effects of declining newspaper circulation is that profitability concerns makes the newspaper managers more sensitive to boycotts by subscribers, threatened or real. For example, in June 2007, some of the local "grassroots" activists launched a campaign against the News Leader in protest against the characterization of their leaders as "snakes" by the former editorial page editor, Mr. Dennis Neal, and within a couple months, he was gone.
Beyond the growing pressure on newspaper editors lies the problem of declining citizen awareness of civic affairs. As local newspapers curtail their operations, it will be harder to maintain the same level and quality of news reporting on community events. This will reduce the pressure on public officials and other leaders to behave in accord with the public interest, and the inevitable result will be greater corruption and the erosion of democratic governance.
Another victim of the bleak economy and declining readership is Eighty One magazine, which will cease publication after this month. That is a real shame, as it has been a valuable source of information about entertainment and culture, and occasionally in-depth stories about subjects not often covered in the mainstream press. Deona Landes Houff [poured] her heart and soul into that magazine, and we will all miss it.
Another side-effect of declining newspaper readership is the shrinkage of the comics page, and my favorite -- "Zippy the Pinhead" -- was among the casualties at the Washington Post. The last time the Post cut the "Zippy the Pinhead" from its comics pages, ten or so years ago, I was among those who voiced outrage, and they quickly granted "Zippy" a reprieve. shopfloor.org [reported on the cutback at the Post; link updated]. I commented on the WaPo blog:
The people who are loyal readers of "Zippy the Pinhead" are the ones who most appreciate newspapers. They are the ones who defiantly hold fast to what is authentic and true, like Albert Brooks in the movie Broadcast News, and who rely on good old-fashioned print newspapers to keep tabs on the world and enlighten their minds. Why on earth would the Post alienate the very same people who are most inclined to buy their product, just when their industry is starting to crumble???