Elephant Diaries Revisited: the end of McClatchy

Newspapers for sale at a grocery, 324 East Sixty-first Street, New York, New York. Walker Evans, 1938. 

My memory is vivid of the moment I realized newspapers – my vocation, my dream, my way of life –  were fucked.

I think it was the spring of 2008. Prices for oil and related commodities were spiking. To help write about it for the Albuquerque Journal, I’d signed up for UNM economics professor Jennifer Thatcher’s upper division undergraduate resource economics class. To help make sense of it all.

Dr. Thatcher had drawn a graph of supply and demand under monopoly conditions, showing how a monopolist can charge more, pocketing the excess producer surplus.

My employer, the Albuquerque Journal, had in a sense been such a monopolist. It was a complicated affair because Albuquerque had until early 2008 been a two-newspaper town. But the two papers, the Journal and the spunky afternoon Tribune had shared the same printing plant and back office functions in a “joint powers agreement” that pooled the capital needed to bundle information for widespread delivery.

In the Age of Newspapers, the only real way to the get news was in a bundle, wrapped in a rubber band and thrown on your driveway or plucked from a news rack. But by 2008, newspapers’ monopoly power had long been collapsing, with Internet news access rapidly unbundling the thing. The February 2008 end of the Tribune was only beginning.

As Dr. Thatcher sketched the graph, I could see that triangle of producer surplus – the extra loot you could get by being the only one with hugely costly printing presses – collapsing, and along with it my world – “the end of a certain kind of quasi-bohemian urban existence for the thousands of smart middle-class writers, journalists, and public intellectuals who have, until now, lived semi-charmed kinds of lives of the mind,” in the memorable words of Michael Hirschorn in the January 2009 Atlantic.

Up until that moment, I had been an enthusiastic believer in the search for alternative business models. But in that one graph, I could see that, at the scale and in the places I cared about, it was likely an impossibility.

In December of that year, I launched what I still see as some of the best writing of my life, something that I came to call “the Elephant Diaries“:

The bottom line is that we probably did not deserve the money we made all those years, when we had a quasi-monopoly on daily information delivery, and (more importantly) on advertising delivery. The newspaper has always been an odd product – a bundle of only vaguely related goods that you’re forced to buy as a package. That’s a terrible idea, but it worked for years. The civic mission – the wretch sitting in the city council meeting, or poring over campaign finance reports, or shivering in the cold at dawn at the scene of some horrible accident, the formal witness to mark the passing of the deceased – piggybacked on the revenue generated by the fact that most people really want sports pages and comics and that dreadful little box that every day delivers starlet gossip.

It was lousy economics to spend all that energy on the civic mission stuff, because the best evidence available (especially web traffic) suggests not very many people actually read it. But it’s there, and its presence is nevertheless central, I believe, to the civic dialogue, to the lives of our communities. Now that economics is what matters, the stuff that was noble but not profitable is what will go. Roger Ebert was right last week to bemoan the loss of the thoughtful, but, dude, not enough people are apparently reading that shit any more to pay for people like you and I to keep doing it.

The decline, I now understand, was more complicated than the simplistic Internet narrative I knew then. You can see it in the history of the Pasadena Star-News, my first daily gig:

Ridder Newspapers bought the Star-News in 1956 and Bernard J. Ridder took over as publisher. Ridder merged with Knight to form Knight Ridder in 1974. The paper was sold off in 1989 to a company owned by William Dean Singleton; the Thomson Corporation bought majority control of the paper a year later. Thomson sold the Star-News to Singleton’s MediaNews Groupin 1996, which went on to become part of the Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

The plunder, long before the Internet collapsed the monopoly, seems in retrospect inevitable. It was, as I wrote in 2009, “lousy economics to spend all that energy on the civic mission stuff”. I was there when Singleton began the plunder, and fled to Albuquerque about the time he handed the Star-News off to Thomson.

I was reminded of all this today when I read about the fate of McClatchy newspapers, the Sacramento Bee and its family. From March Tracy in yesterday’s New York Times:

The McClatchy family has been in journalism since 1857, when its flagship publication, The Daily Bee, chronicled the latest for residents of Sacramento in the wake of the gold rush. Now, in keeping with a trend that has placed hundreds of American news outlets in the hands of the finance industry, the McClatchy Company and its 30 newspapers are likely to end up the property of a hedge fund.

In the years that followed, seeing the sketchy future ahead, I began exploring a career in water management, gave serious consideration to enrolling in the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program. (Really. Not making that up.)

It seemed better than the alternative:

It is frequently suggested that there are important parallels between the changing business models of the news and music industries, and that there is much we can learn from one another.

I am currently brainstorming ways to get someone to pay me to perform journalism in bars.

 

2 Comments

  1. John:

    Mort Saul made a living reading newspapers to an audience. Hope you can do the same thing. Since bars are mostly closed here in California, and around parts of the US, you may have to find a another venue. A cousin of Inkstain?

    Best and stay healthy.

    Phil

  2. Don’t hold your breath, but, I will buy you a drink.
    Keep writing.
    I have no idea where this is going, but, a free press has to prevail in one form or another or we’re just screwed.

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