Writings and observations

Goodbye to a reliable friend

Menzel TOM
MENZEL

 
Washington
My Home

Last week I got the message that I had dreaded for months. I pretty much knew the day would come, but I didn’t think it would be so abrupt. We first met in the 1950s in the small Wisconsin town where I was born. I was just a kid looking for something to do when my neighborhood pals went home for dinner. For most active 8-year-olds, a minute of downtime can feel like an hour.

We were enthusiastically introduced by my parents, who somehow knew we’d get along. They were so right. Our relationship blossomed over the years – growing deeper as we spent more time together. Even in high school we kept in touch almost daily, despite all the distractions that could have easily pulled us apart. We continued our relationship non-stop almost every day for more than 50 years, even after I moved to Idaho, then later to Washington. After brief separations – for fishing trips, backpacking adventures or family commitments – I always scrambled to catch up so I wouldn’t feel left behind.

Monet
Monet reading

However, in recent years I knew things were changing. No matter how hard I tried, barriers were gradually building up between us. Then on Tuesday, April 2, the message suddenly popped up on my screen:

“Your free access has ended. Subscribe today for unlimited access!”

Yes, I had been freeloading on the Seattle Times for a couple of years. I was among those who stopped subscribing to the “dead tree” edition which had been delivered miraculously to my semi-rural home since moving to the Puget Sound in 2003. For the first time in my life I was reading a daily newspaper that wasn’t on paper. The Times was online. It was free. It was even updated with the latest news throughout the day. Unless I was incapable to part with tradition, I had no reason to pay $300 a year for my daily news fix.

But there it was – front and center on my screen when I tried to call up a story. “Time to pay up, pal!”

I had wondered why they waited so long, but I felt almost insulted when it happened. Pretty strange for a former newspaper editor who knows that it takes real money to run a newspaper. In my previous life, I pulled a salary (albeit not much of one) out of newspapers for 14 years – four at a daily in Wisconsin and 10 at the Idaho Statesman in Boise. Those were heady days for newspapers. Many were influential – some perhaps too powerful. And many owners were among the rich and famous.

Power and riches aside, I have always had great respect for the fourth estate – at least the responsible ones. Although I never worked at a major daily, I read the respected Milwaukee Journal as a kid (starting with the comics, of course) and discovered that I could write my way out of almost anything in high school. I then graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a journalism degree and proudly worked as a reporter, photographer and editor until I started my communications consulting business in 1986. I enjoyed the newsroom so much that I didn’t even notice when I spent 50 hours a week or more on the job, which I did regularly. (Why I left a career I loved is a whole different story.)

I’ve always been, and always will be, a news junky. Therefore, I’m a huge fan of C-SPAN, TVW (Washington’s excellent state public affairs television network), PBS NewsHour, NPR – any news program without Cialis ads. It was my fate. My grandfather owned the small but prosperous daily in my hometown. My mother wrote for the paper. My uncle was the editor for many years. And I delivered them every day, even in the middle of January blizzards. The news was as much a part of our family as a pet is to some.

So, of all people, I should be willing to pay for a good newspaper, right? A solid news operation needs cash to pay skilled reporters who take their work seriously and can write circles around 99 percent of the population; under-appreciated photographers who are some of the best on the planet; competent editors and newsroom managers who have to be disciplined and independent while knowing when to pull on the reins. They have to pay for (but probably not for much longer) massive rolls of paper by the ton, ink by the barrel, amazing machines that pound out thousands of papers 365 days a year without fail, and the skilled pressmen to run them (I even had the privilege of yelling “Stop the presses!” several times). Finally, every daily has to pay for a cumbersome system that delivers a bundle of news directly to our homes by an unheralded pack of young kids (and some adults) trying to make a few bucks.

Add to this the cadre of advertising personnel who sell the ads that bring in most of the operating cash day after day. The same cycle is repeated every 24 hours for the printed newspaper. It almost wears me out just thinking about it.

So there. I love newspapers, and I really like my Seattle Times. But the Times and most other dailies in the country are now in crisis mode, forced to reinvent themselves as ad revenue continues to flow to the digital world. Newspapers have been losing subscribers, laying off employees, closing their doors, declaring bankruptcy, even resorting to publishing only three days a week. Like the Times, many have implemented aggressive price increases for print subscriptions, forcing fewer subscribers to pay even more. This is not a pretty picture.

While I accept part of the blame for not subscribing, the newspaper industry was caught sleepwalking into the digital age. They were in denial for years as the Internet snuck up behind them and bit them in the ass. When they finally went digital, they gave away their work like it was a charitable service. Then it hit them that they needed to also charge for their digital product if they are to survive.

Better late than never? Maybe. But recent data isn’t promising. In the first half of 2012 alone, newspapers lost $25 in print ad revenue for every $1 in new digital ad revenue (see http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/business-news/the-biz-blog/187577/newspapers-print-ad-losses-are-larger-than-digital-ad-gains-by-a-ratio-of-25-to-1/). Meanwhile, the Internet is teeming with endless, free alternative sources (some of it reliable, much of it crap) that can adequately keep us informed, if done right.

So I’m very sad that my long relationship with newspapers as I know it may be coming to an end. I’ve already bookmarked at least a half-dozen reliable local and statewide news sources and there’s certainly no shortage of excellent national and international sources. I’m actually discovering what I’ve been missing.

I haven’t yet decided if I’ll pay $207 a year for my daily digital news fix from a single source. But I have no intention of having the printed version delivered in a bag at the end of our driveway for $333 a year. I know, I know … that’s a heck of a deal for 365 days of continuous news. But I’m sorry, my old friend – it’s tough to beat free. Our half-century of good times together is probably coming to an end.

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