Wednesday, July 11, 2007

About 12 years ago, I got a call from Tom Bray, then editorial page editor of the Detroit News. I had known him since the early 1980s, when he was an editor of the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, where I had written many articles. Tom asked if I would be interested in writing a column for the News and I agreed. Subsequently, I offered my column to The Washington Times and eventually it was picked up by Creators Syndicate for national distribution.

This is the last of those columns. The world has changed a lot since 1995 and I’ve decided that there are better ways for me to express myself. The Internet, in particular, has enormously changed the ability to get a message out; one is no longer dependent on the traditional media, such as newspapers, for that purpose. Today, anyone with a computer and a modem can start a blog and, for all intents and purposes, be a columnist.

In the not-too-distant past, this was impossible. If you didn’t write for a newspaper, it was very hard to get out timely commentary on topical subjects. But if you were any good, it wasn’t too difficult to make a pretty good living as a columnist because there were many newspapers and competition raised the value of those columnists that readers would follow from one paper to another.

In those days, most major cities had several papers — at least one in the morning and another in the afternoon. Since editorial policies were one way papers competed, if one was liberal the other, usually the afternoon paper, tended to be conservative.

But as work patterns and lifestyles changed, most cities became one-newspaper towns. The morning paper usually survived while the afternoon newspaper died, generally eliminating the conservative voice. Even when the morning paper was the conservative one, it generally became liberal once it had a monopoly.

For a few years, once the competition was eliminated, newspapers were cash machines making enormous profits. But investors came to demand such profits year after year. As competition from talk radio and the Internet undercut their position, newspapers responded by sharply cutting costs to maintain high profit margins.

One way they cut back is by reducing budgets for columnists and depending on those that came at no additional cost from the New York Times and Washington Post syndicates. Now it seems as if every paper is running the same few columnists — like David Broder from The Post and Tom Friedman from the New York Times. Their main attraction is that they mirror the conventional wisdom and seldom upset anyone with controversial opinions about anything.

Those who wanted more biting opinion gravitated to the Internet, where vast numbers of people offer commentary along every single point on the political spectrum. It became very easy to find writers expressing exactly one’s own personal opinion about everything.

Bloggers also have the advantages of no space constraints, an ability to post comments in real time, and to offer links to supporting documents and sources. Now they even have audio and video.

As a result, the demand for traditional column writing has pretty much dried up, just as the demand for buggy whips collapsed when the automobile came along. I don’t mourn the old system. I am a great fan of bloggers and learn far more from them than I do from the Broders and Friedmans of the world, who have largely become irrelevant to serious political discussion.

Furthermore, the basic medium through which columnists operate, newspapers, are dying a slow death. It’s a rare week when some major paper doesn’t announce new layoffs, buyouts or other severe cost-cutting measures, such as reducing the size of the paper to save on costly newsprint, as the New York Times will do next month. At some point, the bloodletting will end, but not before many more papers fold. Eventually, we will probably be left with a handful of national papers, with all the rest devoted exclusively to local news.

Broadcasters are under the same pressures and I suspect the traditional nightly network news program will eventually go the way of the dodo. Those who care about the news will get it from cable, the Internet or talk radio.

However, I think there will always be a market for quality commentary and some day someone will figure out a better way to make money from it. In the meantime, I have decided to devote myself to writing books, where authors still have control over their output and can make better money. I will still write the occasional column, but this is the last one I plan to write on a weekly basis. I offer thanks to all my readers and editors for their support.

Bruce Bartlett is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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