W(h)ither Newspapers—and Their Cities?

Newspapers have long been an important part of my life. Whether it was, if returning home from downtown Chicago with my mother in the 1970s, the effort to ensure that we secured for my father the “final markets” edition of that day’s Chicago Daily News (not merely the “latest markets,” I was taught to discriminate), or reading the New York Times in the 1980s while off in college and getting a broader sense of the world, or in the 1990s moving to Milwaukee and coming to know my adoptive city in part through its paper (regrettably, after it had become a one-newspaper town), newspapers have been for me, as for so many others, more than even the primary source of news. That remains the case, even if we are “reduced” at home to taking the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Chicago Tribune.

Today of course the internet offers both access to far more newspapers than even an out-of-town newsstand (to use an almost anachronistic term) and a threat to their viability, it seems. I wonder what the effect of this will be on our own region.

While I have been wondering about this for a while (or at least since Doonesbury was recently removed from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, presumably for expense reasons), an essay in the most recent New Yorker by James Surowiecki particularly prompts this post.

Among the essay’s more interesting observations, at least for me as a one-time regulated-industries lawyer, is this: “In a famous 1960 article called ‘Marketing Myopia,’ Theodore Levitt held up the railroads as a quintessential example of companies’ inability to adapt to changing circumstances. Levitt argued that a focus on products rather than on customers led the companies to misunderstand their core business. Had the bosses realized that they were in the transportation business, rather than the railroad business, they could have moved into trucking and air transport, rather than letting other companies dominate. By extension, many argue that if newspapers had understood they were in the information business, rather than the print business, they would have adapted more quickly and more successfully to the Net.”

This is not the extent of Surowiecki’s observations. For example, he is not altogether critical of newspaper management, observing, in particular, that “[t]he peculiar fact about the current crisis is that even as big papers have become less profitable they’ve arguably become more popular” (he refers, of course, to the blogosphere’s reliance on newspapers). And he states that “it would not be shocking if, sometime soon, there were big American cities that had no local newspaper.” This last is an especially arresting comment, as newspapers for well more than a century have played such a large role in defining cities’ sense of themselves.

I would be interested in others’ observations on these matters.

Joseph D. Kearney

Joseph D. Kearney has served as dean and professor of law at Marquette University Law School since 2003. He joined the faculty in 1997.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Bruce Boyden

    as newspapers for well more than a century have played such a large role in defining cities’ sense of themselves.

    That’s an interesting point; it reminds me of Benedict Anderson’s argument that newspapers are an integral part of the formation of a national identity — an “imagined community,” in his terms. On a smaller scale, newspapers may also have been important in forming a regional or metropolitan identity, although that sense of shared identity is probably much weaker than national identity. In any event, even if newspapers did play such a role, it would be a separate question whether they are important in maintaining a regional identity. There may be other ways that is accomplished now.

    Newspapers, like most 20th-century media, are obviously in a period of transition. But it’s a bit difficult to figure out what they are transitioning to. It seems to me that there are two possibilities: first, the market for local news content that newspapers served still exists, but print newspapers are no longer the most efficient way to serve it. If that’s true, then local newspapers may be able to transition to an online format. Whether they could make that transition successfully would depend on whether there are new market substitutes that are cheaper to produce than newsrooms with full-time staff, e.g., amateur bloggers. I have only my intuitions to go on, but my sense is that amateur bloggers feed off the news media rather than substituting for it.

    But the second possibility is more pessimistic. It could simply be that the market for local news content is evaporating. That might be driven by a decreased attachment to local identity, rather than a cause of it; if people are more interested, and feel themselves more bound up with, issues of national concern rather than lcoal concern, then they simply will not pay very much, in dollars or time, for local news. To flip Tip O’Neill’s famous dictum around, if all politics is now national, then all forms of local news media — television as well as newspapers — are in trouble. That would certainly be a different world than we live in now. Would it be worse? I’m not sure.

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