Commentary

Who Will Sponsor the News?

The big news in Atlanta this weekend was the “merger” of the local Rich’s department store chain with Macy’s.

Both chains are owned by Federated Department Stores. Both target the same buyers. Both anchor local malls.

Federated will close some Macy’s (including the last downtown department store), turn a few into Bloomingdale’s outlets, and call the rest “Rich’s-Macy’s.” (My guess is they’ll drop the “Rich’s” name in a few years.)

The local paper’s coverage concentrated on the loss to downtown, the loss to some close-in malls, and the loss of jobs.

The real story, which wasn’t mentioned, was the loss to the newspaper itself.

On the day the story broke, the front news section was 18 pages. Half of the section consisted of ads. All but 1½ of those ad pages were Rich’s or Macy’s ads, with Rich’s taking 5 pages.

But this is not really a local story. In major cities across the country, the “dry goods” business has been moving away from companies like Federated, which advertise heavily in newspapers, and toward companies like Wal-Mart and Target, which don’t.

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It’s one more piece of evidence that the newspaper industry, as we once knew it, is dying.

There are losses everywhere. Help-wanted ads are being swallowed by sites such as Monster.Com. Used car ads are going to outfits like Auto Trader, and other classifieds have been disappearing online, too.

In the business section, real estate ads have been going to local business weeklies for years, and those ads have nearly disappeared entirely in this recession.

While movie theaters still advertise in the entertainment sections, they also like free “alternative” weeklies, where ads cost less.

Auto dealers and tire dealers remain loyal (for now), but even they are investing more heavily in TV, radio, and billboards.

Each time newspapers raise subscription rates, they lose readers. People under 35 have, by and large, lost the daily newspaper habit.

One result is we’re ever-more dependent on TV for news coverage. But many local affiliates are dropping local news, while most of the rest go by the adage "if it bleeds, it leads.”

School boards, city councils and state legislatures are becoming reporter-free zones. If a scandal isn’t reported, does it make a sound? My guess is we’re about to find out.

Who is to blame for this sad state of affairs? So-called analysts point to TV, to the Internet, to readers themselves.

They’re blaming everyone but the people really responsible, the newspaper industry.

Newspapers today give us nothing (save a few comics) we can’t get elsewhere. The writing is dry, the stories are a day late, and the people who work there (and I count many among my personal friends) are pompous and arrogant.

Nearly all major cities (except New York) now have “newspaper monopolies.” That’s what people at newspapers believe. But that’s never been the case. There are business papers and entertainment papers, community papers and (even) political papers.

What is disappearing is the news business, as we’ve known it over the last century. No one is sponsoring it, no one is buying it.

Hopefully, something different, better, and (most important) more competitive will replace it.

I can hardly wait.

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