By Anna Merlan
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On the southeast corner of 96th Street and Broadway, on any weekday morning, you would swear that the U.S. daily-newspaper industry isn't dying. In the bodega there, New Yorkers who don't already have the Wall Street Journal or New York Times tucked under their arms plunk down cash to buy the Daily News, the New York Post, and Newsday. At the nearby mouth of the subway, hawkers push the free tabloids amNew York and Metro at scurrying straphangers.
It's a scene that doesn't exist anywhere else in the country. In a city of outsize egos, you can credit some of the biggest in town for keeping alive at least the appearance of a once-thriving industry that is vanishing elsewhere. This is the biggest city in the country, and it's the capital of capitalism, but why seven dailies? Why are there so many actual, physical daily newspapers you can hold in your hands, in an age where "thumbers" (as legendary newspaper columnist Pete Hamill calls them) can grab news for free on their iPhones and BlackBerrys?
"It's not the health of newspapers. It's the health of the newspaper owners," quips NYU urban studies professor Mitchell Moss.
In other cities big and small, daily newspapers are stumbling toward the brink of financial ruin—and are increasingly the subjects of their own obituaries. Bars in other big cities make money off the wakes and reunions that reporters and editors conduct for their dead papers.
Big papers, we're talking about. Denver's Rocky Mountain News? Dead. Seattle's Post-Intelligencer? Now online only. The giant company that owns the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times? Mired in bankruptcy court. Chicago's other daily, the Sun-Times, is trying to hold on long enough for a pending sale to go through. The Orange County Register and Philadelphia Inquirer? Bankruptcy court. The Boston Globe? Threatened by its owner (the New York Times) with extinction. San Francisco's only remaining daily, the Chronicle? Barely hanging on. The McClatchy chain of papers, in such cities as Miami and Sacramento? Stuck in bankruptcy court.
Overall, newspaper advertising revenue throughout the country dropped 29 percent in the second quarter, according to the Newspaper Association of America (NAA). That translates to $2.8 billion less in revenue than during the same period in 2008 (which wasn't a healthy year, either). The biggest portion of that drop was in classified advertising, which fell 40 percent in the quarter. Even before the Great Recession, ad revenues were plummeting, thanks in large part to Craigslist's free classifieds and other Web-based operations that have changed the retail-ad landscape.
Less revenue equals smaller profits (or no profits) for these once-lucrative papers, which equals fewer jobs. The big papers have slashed their international and D.C. bureaus and have closed outposts for national coverage. Circling the wagons, they've abandoned even regional and state coverage and have abolished specialized beats. Columnists are vanishing like dodos as their dinosaur newspapers are dying.
"In the end," says Hamill, also a former editor of both the Daily News and the Post, "it all depends on what's in the newspapers. Someone has to acknowledge the notion that content costs money. A.J. Liebling is still as fresh today as he was in 1944, reporting from North Africa. But he didn't do it for free. He got paid."
Unlike most bloggers—many of whom used to work on newspapers, but now work for free—one out of every five journalists working in 2001 is now out of the business. John Sturm, president of the NAA, a trade group representing 2,000 papers, estimates that 30,000 jobs have been lost just since 2007, and says that newspaper readership is actually growing: "Newspapers' print editions, combined with their websites, have a larger audience than ever," he says, "and their content never has been more popular—even among young people. Although print circulation has fallen, the audiences for newspaper websites continue to grow at a rate that outpaces the losses in print."
Despite all the buzz about newspapers' charging for their Web content, Jeff Jarvis, a professor at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, says the online pay model ain't gonna fly."That's insane," he says. "It's like trying to attract customers by saying, 'Our cars cost more to make. Pay us more.' "
Even if Sturm is correct that readership is expanding online, newspapers still haven't figured how to make money from it. Life magazine recently ran a photo spread headlined, "When Newspapers Mattered."
But newspapers—the things you hold in your hands—still matter in New York City. Sure, New York's newspapers are hurting. Revenue is down. Circulation at the tabloids is down. None of the papers, except the Wall Street Journal, has figured out how to generate steady, significant revenue off the Web. But none of them has gone out of business.
Of course, the number of New York City dailies today is only a shadow of those of the past: In the 1920s, there were 11 dailies published in Manhattan alone, and four in Brooklyn.
Yes, New York City is a special case: The Times and Journal are essentially national papers in scope, and the New York Post aims at being the nation's brassy tabloid. Newsday (unlike the Post and Daily News) aims almost entirely at commuters, not the residents of the five boroughs. And yes, amNew York and Metro are much smaller and little more than headline services.