America’s doomed small newspapers

By Felix Salmon
August 13, 2009
two-part  magnum opus laying out five reasons why newspapers are failing is a must-read -- or at least the first three reasons are; the final two are a little weaker.

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Bill Wyman’s 9,000-word, two-part magnum opus laying out five reasons why newspapers are failing is a must-read — or at least the first three reasons are; the final two are a little weaker.

The first part, on how consumers have never paid for news, is the clearest exegesis I’ve yet seen of the truism that newspapers don’t sell news, they sell readers. The second part delivers some much-needed home truths about how most newspapers really aren’t that great to begin with. And the third part explains why the Gawker version of a Washington Post story is nearly always going to be much more fun to read than the original newspaper article.

Wyman doesn’t pretend to have solutions to these problems; most likely there aren’t any. He does provide a list of suggestions, at the end, for newspaper owners; they’re all good ideas, but they’re by no means sufficient to turn around the imploded economics of local newspaper publishing, and I think he implicitly overstates how effective they can be.

Wyman has provided a good analysis of why newspapers are doomed; the weakness in his article comes towards the end, when he hints that this state of affairs might have been avoided, or maybe even could still be avoided. The biggest newspapers in the land can and probably will pursue a successful last-man-standing strategy. But among the thousand-plus smaller newspapers, the number with a rosy long-term future is pretty much zero.


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Good article. There’s really no reason to “read” any newspaper these days. One can hardly see the articles at the top of each page because of all the ads at the bottom half of the pages. It’s much easier to do it all online – faster browsing, ads are interactive, and best of all, we don’t have to turn every single page looking for where the articles are continued. The problem with the paper in my town is that they are really busy trying to make the new rather than just report it. The local TV stations do the same and I would venture to guess that’s why their viewership is at an all time low.

Posted by Frank | Report as abusive

Thanks Felix. Looking forward to giving this a read.

In the meantime, I think that still leaves the huge question of what happens if (when) the newspapers disappear. Do you expect anything as comprehensive to replace them? Even Gawker relies on the WaPo to provide the content, and I feel like a lot of major stories just won’t get broken if we lose the papers.

I realize this isn’t a solution (and maybe the piece addresses this), but are we just doomed to lose the in-depth coverage newspapers provide? Even though most people (apparently) don’t care about it, it seems like a big loss.

Posted by ab | Report as abusive

His one corporate finance prescription is wrong, I think. By “pleasing Wall Street”, the newspaper companies returned cash to shareholders rather than embarking on empire building. This capital that is returned doesn’t lie fallow – it is recycled by the capital markets into productive investment (e.g. google). I would prefer the markets, in all their imperfect irrational glory, to allocate resources towards productive use (rather than self-aggrandizing corporate bosses).

To be clear: yes, returning cash to shareholders was bad for employees and management of existing players, but in terms of both system-wide allocative efficiency and in terms of total shareholder return, I think it worked out for the best.

Posted by Sunset Shazz | Report as abusive

Oh, good stuff. I\’m sorry, the reason why print editorial is timid in the era of the web is simple – they still don\’t acknowledge the web. It is irrevelant, or it is trivial, or it doesn\’t really apply to me because I\’m reporting local news. But he\’s right, it\’s not news, and will never be. When my (small) city publishes transcripts of its alderman meetings on the web the next day, why should I buy a paper for the summary of them? Especially when the reporter left at 9PM in order to make his print deadline?

I don’t have an answer either, except to say that reporting at the most basic level is highly overrated. Basic reporting can be done with a recorder and text-to-speech software. Let’s keep the big-feature journalists, and lose the reporters. But, of course, then the concept of the “paper” is gone.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

He notes the smaller newspaper in his city was awarded a Pulitzer. The problem with that is the the Pulitzer plus a couple of bucks will get you a latte grande at a Starbucks. The fact the I have no idea what a latte grande is, or any desire to have one, is another story entirely.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Newspapers dying is good. It eliminates te middleman te one controlling journalism

Now journalists will learn to find and write critical news and sell it to us instead of being controlled by advertisers, wealthy businessmen, editors etc

Posted by Vermont devil | Report as abusive

I would love to read a website such as Wyman describes in his piece. What still needs to be worked out is whether you could make any money with such a site. What he describes seems to cheaper than traditional newspapers but more expensive that existing web sites.

Its anybody’s guess whether advertisers will pay for this sort of site.

Posted by brian gulino | Report as abusive

Indeed, and it isn’t just the local papers. Why on earth would you read the NY Times on the financial crisis if you can read Simon Johnson on it directly (though Gretchen Morgenstern’s a decent reporter). And why does the Times still employ *Ben Stein* — he’s the perfect example of someone resting on their laurels, although in his case, I’m not sure what those laurels are, aside from his role in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Posted by PghMike | Report as abusive