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Journalism’s Big Investigations Sliding Into a Big Pit
Posted on Aug 2, 2010
By T.L. Caswell
And on it goes.
Over the past decade or so, all of those newspapers have had to take dramatic cost-saving steps, such as heavy reductions in staffing and changes in news coverage and presentation. But at least they have kept their presses running, unlike many of their smaller brethren.
One Internet site said on July 9 that 166 U.S. newspapers had closed or stopped publishing on paper since 2008, and another recently quoted federal findings that newspaper publishing jobs had dropped by about a third, from more than 450,000 in July 1990 to about 300,000 in July 2009, and that the rate of decline increased after 2001.
Now there is even a website named Newspaper Death Watch, with a subtitle that registers both fatalistic acceptance of reality and hope for better days: “Chronicling the Decline of Newspapers and the Rebirth of Journalism.”
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Whether the virus infecting print journalism jumped from the Internet or some other source, the patient is unarguably, grievously ill.
Most of the fellow journalists I speak with, especially those working in print, are reticent when it comes to trying to predict the future of the industry, saying the name of the game is “wait and see.” Being less prudent (maybe foolish?), I will rush in where these angels fear to tread. Here is my guess—and it is just a guess, although it is supported by some who claim expertise in tracking the course of print journalism: The decline of ink-on-paper newspapers and magazines is irreversible; most will disappear. Ink-on-paper staffs will be ever more reduced, physical plants will be ever smaller, operating budgets will grow weaker and weaker.
The great metropolitan dailies that dominated geographical regions will lose much of their markets as circulation and ad revenue decline, as the costs of raw materials go up, and as electronic rivals that do not depend on rail cars, heavy trucks and publishing schedules gain strength.
Some publications will hang on for quite a while by shrinking to sizes that can be supported by stingy economic conditions. Some big print publications, dieting heavily, will undergo transformation and move most or all of their operations to the Internet, where they may stay afloat if they can figure out how to get customers to pay for their products (a feat rarely accomplished now), but those shape-shifters will never again be the behemoths they once were.
Among the few paper publications left standing will be some special-interest magazines, with limited circulation, that can charge high subscription fees.
For big journalism of the ink-on-paper variety, it is almost over. No miracle of salvation is on the horizon.
So, that’s what my low-rent crystal ball is telling me in this summer of 2010. Sorry, print journalism—next stop, Heartbreak Hotel.
I dearly hope my forecast is wrong. I love big newspapers. I always have loved newspapers, period. They have played a dominating role in my work life, and when I was a child they were highly valued within my home. For me, speaking of a coming demise of print journalism is an exercise in sorrow: much like a baseball fan predicting an eternity of rainouts.
As big print goes, so go big print investigations. The smaller publications that survive simply won’t have the will or the resources to spend years and millions of dollars to delve into schemes, injustice, corruption, malfeasance, governmental secrets and other such issues of the day. Industry bean counters will tell you: Big investigations are not cost-effective. And they will add that the benefits of seeking out hidden truth for the social good cannot directly be entered on a balance sheet. O, unhappy days.
In 2006, journalism students at Arizona State University conducted a survey on investigative work at major American newspapers. The findings of the survey (which stirred up some disagreement) were no cause for celebration among investigative reporters.
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