Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Friend's Lament About The Demise of Newspapers

Following is a letter that a friend, Jan Slusmon, of Burlington, VT, sent to some friends and I:

An Amazing Change

About a month ago, my wife and I made an amazing change, one that is strange and deeply unsettling. For the first time in my adult life, I/we do not get a daily newspaper every day.

This is an astonishing change for me. I have always been a huge fan of newspapers. For much of my adult life, I read as many as three, four, or even five papers a day. There were days I'd spend a couple of hours reading them.

In addition, I spent about 15 years of my life working in the newspaper business, as a reporter and editor, and also have worked in both commercial and public radio, and for many more years indexing newspaper and magazine articles for scholarly databases.

And so this was a pretty drastic step.

We'd been talking about dropping our local paper for some time, and had vowed to do it when the price went from 50 cents to 75 cents a day.

Although money is a concern to me as I transition toward retirement, it was not the issue here. What has really happened is that there has been a very steep decline in the quality and comprehensiveness of newspapers, along with a very steep increase in price, one I'm no longer willing to pay. (I would gladly pay 75 cents a day for something, but I feel taken to spend the same amount on nothing).

Our local paper, the Burlington Free Press, is a Gannett paper, a member of the fast-food, lowest common denominator chain, where profits have always been far more important than quality. But it did have a fair amount of local news, even if the quality was not very good. In the past couple of years, the amount of local news covered by the Free Press has dropped off to almost nothing. It's all stories from the wire services, and a wrapping for advertising circulars. There's nothing in it, and they kept raising the price. In the last year or two, it's taken less than 60 seconds to read everything of interest in a 24 or 36-page paper.

I felt great dropping the Free Press, and had planned to switch to the Boston Globe, one of America's greatest newspapers, and the one strong regional paper for New England. The Globe is excellent in many ways--a real newspaper. But a week after the Free Press price hike, the out-of-town distributors who bring the Globe to Burlington hiked the price from 75 cents a day (which I was willing to pay) to $1.30 a day. At the same time, they raised the price of the New York Times (which I used to read daily and still read occasionally) from $1.25 a day to $1.75 a day, and $6 on Sunday. Even USA Today, which is pretty thin but has some occasional good stories, has gone from 50 cents to $1 a day in short order.

As late as the mid 1970s, I was buying two local papers from Vermont, the Boston Globe, and The New York Times, for a total of 50 cents or less a day! And some days I'd splurge and get the Montreal Gazette for another 20 cents.

And so I find myself frustrated. Some days I buy the Globe, other days USA Today, but for the very first time in my life I don't get a paper every day. And costs of everything are skyrocketing. My wife and I thought we were secure for a good retirement, but the prices of everything keep skyrocketing out of sight, and we find ourselves making decisions about buying all kinds of little things we never gave much thought to.

I find myself getting a lot of my news now from PBS (Macneil Lehrer) and NPR. But broadcast news is STILL not as good as the news from a good newspaper. I also (shudder) find myself getting a lot of news from the Internet. The Internet is an amazing medium, but I've never thought of it as a place for comprehensive, balanced news--it's more about entertainment, infotainment, and opinion, sometimes wacky opinion.

I do find myself reading The New York Times, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor etc. websites, as well as the websites of local papers. But I feel queasy doing this, like I'm cheating. This information is basically all coming from the newspapers, and if nobody pays to buy the newspapers, this information will disappear.

I find it amazing that in a few years we have gone from newspapers as a very strong, venerable tradition, one I've loved and thought would always be a part of my life, to one that is declining dramatically in quality and scope, and one that, instead of costing a pittance, would require me to spend a couple of hundred dollars a month to sustain my "habit", money I don't really feel like spending in view of my other needs.

We live in amazing times.....


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