- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Today’s big news: newspapers in trouble.

Tomorrow’s big news: newspapers still in trouble.

The Chicago Sun-Times filed for Chapter 11 protection on Tuesday, making it the fifth American paper to take that option in the last three months. None of the papers, however, has ceased publication.

Yet media coverage frames the ongoing financial struggles of the print press in dramatic and often inaccurate terms. Each monetary woe — whether it’s the New York Times cutting salaries by 5 percent or layoffs at the Houston Chronicle — is lumped together under the heading “the death of newspapers.”

The exact phrase “death of newspapers” was used to headline or anchor more than 300 separate news stories in the past year, according to a Nexis search — that’s about 25 stories per month that have pronounced the death of the genre. “Death of print” is another favorite.

Cultural underpinnings have emerged.

Huffington Post writer Paul Daily declared he had joined the burgeoning population of “Death of Newspapers” bloggers, who bandy about dramatic jargon like “bloodbath” and “death spiral” to describe the state of things. Deathofnewspapers.com, a Web site that tracks the trend, has been keeping a vigil for more than two years.

The reality?

Of the 1,437 daily newspapers around the nation, 10 have actually gone belly-up since 2007 — as in, ceased to publish. Claims that the once-proud newspaper had devolved to doddering or extinct dinosaur are, perhaps, greatly exaggerated.

“We should not be yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” said Robert Steele, media ethicist for the Poynter Institute.

“We should not scare the public or make the situation worse than it is. Not every paper is going under. Most will survive; some will thrive. But there is a lot being lost along the way. Thousands of skilled journalists are losing their jobs, and coverage of important events is being undercut. That part is very real,” Mr. Steele said.

“It’s important not to oversimplify the reasons behind this, and be as rigorous in reporting this story as we do on the auto industry or the banks. At times, we don’t shine the light of scrutiny on ourselves, and that is unconscionable,” he added.

In a cost-cutting move that has been anticipated since December, the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News this week reduced home delivery to Thursday, Friday and Sunday only, though newsstand sales will continue and a print-exact electronic version will be available online.

Last summer, The Washington Times cut back to six days of print editions, with a similar “e-edition” being published on Saturday. The Christian Science Monitor transformed its daily paper into an “e-edition” and Web-only publication last week.

But some Detroiters are not much bothered by the measure.

“To be truthful, if you want to get the news for real, you go to the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Or you listen to the radio or maybe CNN,” said Bert Dearing Jr., owner of Bert’s Marketplace, a jazz and barbecue eatery in Detroit. “The local news has been white-washed for a long time. You don’t get the true news from the local paper anymore, and that’s their own fault.”

Some observers smell a rat — suggesting that overblown coverage of newspaper “death” is calculated to undermine a distinct rival.

Online scribes and broadcasters exaggerate or dramatize their coverage of newspapers’ woes, said Randy Siegel, president of Parade Publications and a co-founder of the Newspaper Project, a research group examining the future of the genre.

“As newspaper companies fight for survival and attempt to rectify many of the mistakes they have made in the past decade, they don’t deserve a break from anyone … . What they do deserve, however, is a little more objective coverage of their problems and more detailed disclosure about the possible motives of those ‘critics’ and ‘analysts’ who are hardly unbiased observers,” Mr. Siegel said.

“I think that a lot of coverage has conflated ‘the death of newsprint’ with ‘the death of newspapers,’ ” said Time magazine culture writer James Poniewozik.

The “journalistic voice” does not disappear should a newspaper abandon its print edition in favor of an online version.

“There is the ‘small-n’ newspaper, which you hold in your hands; and there is the ‘big-n’ newspaper, the information-gathering entity that informs people,” Mr. Poniewozik said. “People can have an attachment to the former, but it’s the latter that really matters.”

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