Communities across America are suffering through a crisis that could leave a dramatically diminished version of democracy in its wake. It is not the economic meltdown, although the crisis is related to the broader day of reckoning that appears to have arrived. The crisis of which we speak involves more than mere economics. Journalism is collapsing, and with it comes the most serious threat in our lifetimes to self-government and the rule of law as it has been understood here in the United States.
After years of neglecting signs of trouble, elite opinion-makers have begun in recent months to recognize that things have gone horribly awry. Journals ranging from , , and to the and the concur on the diagnosis: newspapers, as we have known them, are disintegrating and are possibly on the verge of extinction. 's Walter Isaacson describes the situation as having "reached meltdown proportions" and concludes, "It is now possible to contemplate a time in the near future when major towns will no longer have a newspaper and when magazines and network news operations will employ no more than a handful of reporters." A newspaper industry that still employs roughly 50,000 journalists--the vast majority of the remaining practitioners of the craft--is teetering on the brink.
Blame has been laid first and foremost on the Internet, for luring away advertisers and readers, and on the economic meltdown, which has demolished revenues and hammered debt-laden media firms. But for all the ink spilled addressing the dire circumstance of the ink-stained wretch, the understanding of what we can do about the crisis has been woefully inadequate. Unless we rethink alternatives and reforms, the media will continue to flail until journalism is all but extinguished.
Let's begin with the crisis. In a nutshell, media corporations, after running journalism into the ground, have determined that news gathering and reporting are not profit-making propositions. So they're jumping ship. The country's great regional dailies--the , the , the the --are in bankruptcy. Denver's Rocky Mountain recently closed down, ending daily newspaper competition in that city. The owners of the , reportedly losing $1 million a week, are threatening to shutter the paper, leaving a major city without a major daily newspaper. Big dailies in Seattle (the ), Chicago (the ) and Newark (the ) are reportedly near the point of folding, and smaller dailies like the have already closed. The 101-year-old , in recent years an essential source of international news and analysis, is folding its daily print edition. The Seattle is scuttling its print edition and downsizing from a news staff of 165 to about twenty for its online-only incarnation. Whole newspaper chains--such as Lee Enterprises, the owner of large and medium-size publications that for decades have defined debates in Montana, Iowa and Wisconsin--are struggling as the value of stock shares falls below the price of a single daily paper. And the needed an emergency injection of hundreds of millions of dollars by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim in order to stay afloat.
Those are the headlines. Arguably uglier is the death-by-small-cuts of newspapers that are still functioning. Layoffs of reporters and closings of bureaus mean that even if newspapers survive, they have precious few resources for actually doing journalism. Job cuts during the first months of this year--300 at the , 205 at the , 156 at the , 150 at the , 128 at the , 100 at the , 100 at the , ninety at the , thirty at the and on and on--suggest that this year will see far more positions eliminated than in 2008, when almost 16,000 were lost. Even 's Rick Redfern has been laid off from his job at the .
The toll is daunting. As former executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. and associate editor Robert Kaiser have observed, "A great news organization is difficult to build and tragically easy to disassemble."