- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2007

The news about American newspapers is only semi-bad, but you’d never know it from all the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth on Wall Street.

The attempted kidnapping this week of the Wall Street Journal, which Rupert Murdoch covets to make a compliant cog in his media machine, has focused attention on newspapers and why they’re such targets for the barons of finance. Nearly everyone is rooting for the owning Barclay family of Boston to keep the Journal and its reputation safe from Lord Copper, but the stakes are so enormous that nobody is betting against the king of the tabloids.

The big newspapers still make a lot of money. But “a lot” is not enough for the masters of the universe, who can’t understand why anyone would consider a newspaper crucial to a community’s self-esteem. “Public trust” might as well be the name of a small ripe bank in Dubuque. A return of 15 percent on investment is beyond the wildest dreams of avarice for many investors, but it’s chump change for a chief accountant who could squeeze out another percentage point if he really tried.

The circulation of some big-city newspapers is down, down, down again as readers continue to gravitate to radio, television, the Internet and blissful ignorance. The Dallas Morning News is down 14 percent. Similar declines were posted by other newspapers in the most recent circulation audits, including the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the San Francisco Chronicle.

For those of us old enough to remember the golden age of journalism, such sad tales of hard times reek of pure fantasy. How could it be true that intelligent readers are turning their backs on reading? How can a man be well-informed if he doesn’t read? (Who needs to be informed?) It was never thus only yesterday.

The Commercial Appeal, for example, is the stuff of legend. During the Civil War, as the Yankees closed in on Memphis, the editor took a few sticks of lead type and his hand press, commandeered a railroad car on a passing train headed south and for the next few months the newspaper was published in a half-dozen states. The Yankees ran it to ground in Alabama three years later. When I was a reporter on “the Old Reliable” in an earlier century, the newspaper was held in such high repute that once, when the bailiff of a Mississippi court couldn’t find a Bible to swear in a witness the judge sent him down to the depot for a copy of the Commercial Appeal. “Make sure it’s a fresh copy, with no fingerprints on it,” His Honor told him. Try that with a laptop.

Newspapers were once held as a responsibility to the town, usually by families content to live in the biggest house on Easy Street, to dine well with no envy of the kind of riches to beggar a caliph. The typical copy editor, trying to make enough sense of a news story to put a headline on it, could tell you who owned the newspaper in nearly every town and city in America: the Binghams in Louisville, the McCormicks in Chicago, the Chandlers in Los Angeles, the Sulzbergers in New York, the Heiskells in Little Rock, the Carters in Fort Worth, the Evanses in Nashville, the Grahams in Washington. The families ran their newspapers carefully, and they were important because they were deeply rooted in their communities. Now most of the big-city newspapers are owned by the chains, who regard them merely as sweet plums ready for plucking. Editors are transferred so frequently they rarely remember where to pick up their shirts. The paper in San Antonio looks like the paper in Nashville which looks like the paper in Rochester which looks like the paper in Orlando.

Besides that, it’s all free on the Internet, so why buy it? “News has become ubiquitous, free and as a result, a commodity,” says Walter Hussman, the owner and publisher of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette in Little Rock, a director of the Associated Press. “Not many years ago if someone wanted to find out about what was in the newspaper they had to buy one.” Now it’s free. Any bordello madam would tell you that you can’t sell it if you give it away. Pogo the comic-strip possum said it more politely: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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