The news this week that the Hearst Corp. may shut down the San Francisco Chronicle if it can't find a buyer was bittersweet at best. For 20 years I lived in the Bay Area, and during that time I read the Chronicle, first and foremost. Aside from a few choice writers (like Jon Carroll and Ray Ratto), I can't really say I enjoyed the Chronicle. Everyone I knew in San Francisco felt they lived in a first-class city served by a second-class newspaper (though it may have improved in the 10 years since I left). We called it "The Comical."
But its passing -- and that of other big city dailies like Denver's Rocky Mountain News and (possibly) the Seattle Post-Intelligencer -- brings me no joy, nor should it bring you any. Because even if you never sully your hands with newsprint, you rely on newspapers far more than you realize.
In the great food chain of news reporting, daily newspapers are like plankton -- the thing on which everything else feeds. TV and radio news? Aside from covering staged events or natural disasters, they get many of their stories from papers, then distill it into the bare essentials for broadcast. Magazine editors may be reluctant to admit this, but many articles are "inspired" by stories in the paper. And blogs? Don't get me started. I'd guesstimate a fraction of one percent of blogs feature original reporting; the rest regurgitate news from the mainstream media, mostly newspapers.
If daily newspapers disappeared tomorrow, 100 million bloggers would wake up and have nothing to say. Even the news aggregators would be in deep kimshee. For example, easily 75 percent of the stories on the front page of today's Drudge Report are from newspapers or the wire services that supply newspapers.
The reasons for newspapers' decline are varied (for an excellent dramatization of this decline, rent the fifth season of The Wire, an HBO show created by ex-Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon.) The biggest one of course is that the Internet made it all available for free, and news aggregators scooped up the traffic and ad dollars that might have kept many online newspapers afloat. Now the papers are struggling to figure out how to take it all back.
To believe bloggers can come in and fill the hole left by newspapers is naïve. Some trained reporters have transitioned to the Web, and more will follow. But they'll never be able to devote the resources to a story that a major city daily can. We'll end up with fewer stories, less well reported, from fewer sources.
I'm as guilty as anyone. I don't read a daily newspaper any more; instead, I check Google News several times a day. And though it's free, I'd gladly pay a monthly fee for online news if that would help keep a few more news organizations afloat. I don't think micro-payments are a good idea; but monthly all-you-can-eat access plans might work, if aggregators are willing to give the lion's share of the proceeds to the papers that supply the content.
Trust me, the passing of the daily paper isn't a good thing -- not for you, not for me, and not for anyone who believes a free and vibrant press is essential to our democracy.