So, how did I get the news about the news on the long weekend the newspaper business rolled over in the direction of its grave?
On my mobile phone, of course. Woke up Saturday to find that The New York Times had finally faced the harsh reality and sold the Boston Globe for $70 million, a tiny fraction of the inflated price it foolishly paid 20 years earlier.
Then, Monday afternoon, my phone chirped again with the stunning news that the Graham family was selling The Washington Post to Jeff Bezos for $250 million in cash. Moments later, The PBS NewsHour was on the phone, asking who I’d recommend to sort it out on the broadcast that night. Try Warren Buffet, I said, he’s buying newspapers these days. Maybe he understands something the rest of us don’t.
True, on Tuesday I turned to the print editions of The Times and The Post to get the full story. Both provided admirable and comprehensive coverage and, as usual, David Carr had the best commentary in the NYT. But the point here is simple: the news about the news business came to me on my phone. Digitally. Not in a newspaper. Everybody had it: Google, Yahoo and, of course, the newspaper websites.
Newspapers don’t deliver the news anymore. Certainly not in print. At least, not to most of us, even those of us with the most tenuous connection to the digital world. We know the headlines before we can pick up the paper. We have the basic facts. Who died, how many and where. Who’s selling, who’s buying.
What newspapers can do is give us the background, put a breaking news development in context, compare the latest news with what has gone before, maybe even tell us what it all means. That’s a crucial role. I hope it isn’t sacrificed completely in the economic crisis that is affecting all newspapers to a greater or lesser degree.
Warren Buffet sees a role for newspapers, in print and in digital form. He is buying them, frequently at fire-sale prices, in the Midwest and Southeast. His formula: small or medium-sized papers that have a close connection to their community. Makes sense to me. A friend of mine, Anthony Prisendorf, publishes The Berkshire Record, a thriving weekly in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. His formula: local news and high school sports. Business is so good he is opening a second weekly in the area.
But what about the papers across the country, large and small, that are losing circulation and ad revenue? Those that don’t have a Warren Buffet or Jeff Bezos or John Henry to write a check and salvage them? Will they survive? Will they still appear on newsprint in five, ten or 15 years? Does it matter?
Yes, it does. What matters is not so much whether the product comes to you on your front doorstep in the morning or whether it flashes on your phone or tablet. My own, personal preference is still newsprint. I like to hold it in my hand, roam through the pages, find stories I might not otherwise click on to read, see which stories the editors thought were most important.
But even I have become more and more comfortable reading on an iPad, getting the headlines on my iPhone, getting some commentary on Twitter or Facebook. I can adjust, dinosaur that I am. I swear I can.
What matters is not the form of delivery, but the journalism.
If the Billionaires can save newspapers by buying them and nudging them in the digital direction, more power to them. If they can write the checks that will send reporters to Damascus, Detroit and into the halls of Congress and the state legislatures, bless ‘em. Somebody has to keep an eye on the shop.
And, if I have to read the news on a finger-smudged screen, so be it.
Terence Smith is a journalist who has worked for The New York Times, CBS News and PBS. His website is terencefsmith.com