Earlier this week, Columbia University announced the winners of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes. In journalism, Public Service awards went to The Guardian and The Washington Post for their NSA coverage, and a Breaking News Award was given to The Boston Globe for its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and manhunt. The brutal blows suffered by print journalism over the last decade or so have made these awards an annual occasion for sober self-reflection—especially, this year, at the Globe, where a wealthy new owner is hoping to stabilize operations amidst deep declines in subscriptions and massive newsroom cuts. The Globe’s “muted ceremony,” as reports characterized it, mixed pride in victory with the grim knowledge that over the last 11 years, subscriptions have fallen by more than half, and the newsroom has lost almost 200 journalists.
Not everyone, however, sees reason to despair. “I’ve more or less concluded that the ongoing crisis of newspapers—going bankrupt, being sold for peanuts, firing staff, cutting foreign bureaus, and so on—will all work out, somehow,” wrote Michael Kinsley four days before the Pulitzer announcements. Kinsley admits he doesn’t know how this decline will halt, but he bases his conclusion, quoting the economist Herbert Stein, on the notion that “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Just as the cushy monopolies enjoyed by newspapers of old could not persist, neither can the current trend of shuttered papers and threadbare staffs. “There will always be a demand for high-quality news,” Kinsley insists. Besides, people are increasingly willing to pay to read the news online, and even when they’re not, benefactors will step in to support quality reporting.
This rosy prediction might turn out to be true in the long run, but what happens in the meantime? Even if the decline of print media can’t “go on forever,” it can still continue for a long time to come. If local outlets largely vanish before the trend halts, Kinsley sees nothing to worry about: “most newspapers aren’t very good and wouldn’t be missed by anybody who could get The New York Times or USA Today and some bloggy source of local news.”
Of course, whether “bloggy sources” will fill the gap left by shuttered local newspapers is largely an empirical question. But there are good reasons to assume they won’t. After all, even the lesser local and regional papers employed full-time, professional journalists whose salaries depended upon timely, accurate, and fair reporting. Even if some amateur bloggers, in some cities, could match the quality of that work, where would they get the time and resources to produce it consistently?
These obvious reasons for doubt are borne out by the experiences of journalists who lack Kinsley’s optimism. In 2012, for instance, the reporter Alec MacGillis discovered an FBI investigation of donations made to a U.S. Senate candidate while traveling in Ohio for The New Republic. MacGillis unearthed the FBI query by following up—as no Ohio papers had apparently done—on a curious story about campaign donations in the Toledo Blade. True, after a national political magazine uncovered the federal probe, Ohio papers followed up. But as MacGillis pointed out, his discovery “surely would have been exposed much earlier in the days of a more vigorous local press.” If anyone is tempted to dismiss this as the plight of obscure, tiny newspapers, consider: Ohio has mid- to large-size cities in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, Akron, and Dayton—and local news sources, “bloggy” or otherwise, failed to catch the story before a D.C.-based reporter did. And among the bigger players, devastating cuts have not just hit the Pulitzer-winning Globe, which has one-third fewer journalists than it did in 2002. Earlier this month, the Star-Ledger—which has won three Pulitzers and is the largest newspaper in New Jersey—eliminated one-quarter of its newsroom.
Of course, none of these papers is as high-quality as The New York Times, and maybe many of them wouldn’t be missed if they disappeared. But to be precise, the quality of the newspapers isn’t the issue. As my former TNR colleague Simon van Zuylen-Wood (now a staff writer at Philadelphia Magazine) put it when he tipped me off to Kinsley’s piece, what’s at stake is “people becoming less informed and journalists becoming less employed.” If you look at things that way, it’s a lot harder to bid these papers farewell with such a shrug.