That's if you consider disaster exciting.
What's wrong with newspapers today? The same thing that's always been wrong with newspapers: the people running them.
We've become accustomed to bad news from the ever-narrowing world of print journalism these uneasy days. Not just bad journalism, but bad business decisions. It's as if the suits at Corporate HQ -- or more likely a committee of suits at Corporate HQ -- had drawn up a business plan for all major American newspapers back in 1994 and proceeded to follow it. Right off a cliff.
As more newspapers go off that cliff, you'd think that more of them -- a publisher or editor or somebody, anybody who's in charge -- would yell "WATCH OUT!" and stop on the edge. And decide, then and there, that they're through watching the newspaper they love commit suicide.
Last week, another one bit the dust. Or could soon. This time the newspaper isn't in Seattle or even Denver. It's a lot closer. And it used to be a lot better. It's the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. And the suits running its parent company have decided that the paper's circulation has dropped to the point that it doesn't pay to print a newspaper four days a week.
That's right. In order to get back the subscribers it's lost, the Times-Picayune will make the paper less valuable to readers. Or to be more precise, four-sevenths less valuable every week, since the paper will go to press only on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
So the next time a hurricane hits the coast on a Sunday morning, the story won't make print till Wednesday. That's about the time the crew at the Weather Channel will be packing up to cover the next big weather story on one coast or another.
It's crazy. Or it'll drive you crazy if you can stand to think about it. Murray Kempton, the greatest American opinionator of the last half-century that nobody's ever heard of these days, once explained why Westbrook Pegler went crazy. Mr. Pegler, a truly talented sportswriter and political opinionator in his youthful and even middle-aged prime, was reduced to ill-tempered idiocy in his later years. Which he spent spewing venom at any politician to the left of Genghis Khan.
According to Murray Kempton, it wasn't Westbrook Pegler's hatred of Eleanor Roosevelt, whom he customarily referred to as La Boca Grande, that had driven him nuts, or even his drinking. It was writing his column over the weekend and then having to wait till Wednesday for it to make it into print. Mercifully, he didn't live to see newspapers start cutting out their Monday and Tuesday editions altogether. The way the Times-Picayune has chosen to do.
Just think of New Orleans Saints fans, poor creatures. One of the best things about the Times-Picayune was the Monday morning editions after Saints games. The editors there weren't afraid of splashing photos of the game all over the paper, including the front page. Even taking up most of the front page. New Orleans loves its Saints. Now there'll be no Monday print edition. (You'd think that the next time the Saints win the Super Bowl -- on what's called Super Bowl Sunday -- the paper would at least consider running an Extra the next day.)
The less valuable a newspaper becomes to its readers, the fewer readers it'll get, so management will have to make still more cuts, making the paper even less valuable. That isn't a business model, it's a vicious cycle.
The folks who own the Times-Picayune also own a few papers in 'Bama. Here's the headline last week in the Press-Register in Mobile when it announced it was cutting back its print editions to three days a week:
"Exciting changes for our readers"
But only if you have easy access to the Internet. For those who don't, tough.
The big problem isn't computer access. Most people have it these days -- even on their phones. The big problem is how to make digitized news pay for the folks who provide it. Or as the suits would say, how do you "monetize" it?
That little detail hasn't quite been worked out yet despite a lot of hopeful starts and even a few partial successes. Till then, where's the money going to come from to hire the best journalists, writers, businessmen and production people? To put it in plain Suthuhn, these newspapers are eating their seed corn. This they call a business plan. An exciting business plan.
It's not just newspapers that lose out when "exciting changes" like these are made. Imagine how a vanishing newspaper affects the community. If you turn a newspaper into a TV station -- with only a handful of reporters covering a multitude of beats and subjects they barely understand -- who's going to be the watchdog? Who's going to find out that the mayor is being bribed? Or that local government is paying inflated rates for office space? Who's going to find out that the cops are on the take? Who's going to notice that the books have been cooked at the local college?
Who's going to find out that the state's veterans home is cheating veterans? Who's going to find out that a president or two at a college somewhere has been pulling some slick deals? Who's going to question contracts with the state lottery? Who's going to have the time to dig through all the paperwork and Freedom of Information Act requests and general red tape to get to the bottom of the news and, like any good watchdog, bark when something strange is going on?
Hard as it is to believe, New Orleans may not be above such corruption. From the stories we've read, many of them from the old Times-Picayune, New Orleans may be rife with it.
These are times that try a newspaper's soul. The Great Recession hasn't helped. Trust us. But we never thought great American newspapers would do themselves in this way.