Newspapers in Turmoil!

If you’re a shareholder, the money is still pretty good, but in almost every other way this is a rough time for the middlebrow, mainstream media. Judging by all the hand-wringing, navel-gazing, and gloomy, self-flagellating punditry you’d think the mainstream news media–the “MSM,” as bloggers love to peck—are at the fiery brink as a consequence of their fading influence and terminal irrelevance. Average daily newspapers in particular. There is no shortage of MSM news professionals somberly spreading their own ashes. For the most part, the tone among older journalists is funereal, and for good reason. Old-fashioned journalism is taking a kicking and there’s no sign the beatings will abate.

From the outside, the consumer’s perspective is pretty much one of business as usual. There are generalized complaints about media performance. Too biased. Too dull. Too silly. Too timid. Of course, the real doomsaying and finger-pointing is confined to newsrooms, journalism schools, and the rapidly expanding blogging community, which is especially obsessed with MSM. Awash in twenty-four-hour cable and Internet punditry, the average news “consumer” certainly feels no slackening in the flow of headlines, alerts, “breaking news,” and bloviation. But within the beast, the sense of creative ennui and peril is so tangible you can taste it on your teeth.

There are exceptions, of course. Along with a handful of “major newspapers”—the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post—offering full journalistic service, there are a few carefully guarded, broadcast news venues: ABC’s documentary unit (championed by the late Peter Jennings), Nightline, CNN’s intermittently provocative investigative unit and Aaron Brown’s NewsNight, and National Public Radio. But almost everywhere else, newsrooms have been stripped of adequate resources, imagination, and editorial courage. Too much of the regular, daily content of too many news organizations is filled with predictable, redundant stories produced in the same bland newspeak, the same inevitable tone and perspective.

Meanwhile, the competition is doing whatever it pleases.

The pummeling comes from an increasingly familiar collection of muggers, beginning with MSM’s very own corporate parents. The executive boards overseeing mainstream newsrooms—from ABC, CBS, and NBC down to the St. Paul Pioneer Press—have slashed staff and whacked budgets in their attempts to squeeze every conceivable penny of profit out of their “subsidiaries.”

“For the moment the cow is still giving milk,” one Twin Cities metro columnist told me, “but that’ll end pretty fast once they cut off the last of the fresh grass.”

Simultaneously, political ideologues of all persuasions, but primarily of the right wing, have badly intimidated MSM editors and news directors into playing a disingenuous “balance” game to counter bogus charges of being politically biased. The intention may be noble, but the effect is to suck out yet more passion, character, and accuracy from the news, at the very moment they’re needed most. There is a growing view among journalists that the MSM, by holding back on regular, aggressive challenges to power in all its forms—political, corporate, cultural—is losing its most precious commodity, namely its influence. Worse, it’s a losing business proposition; the dulling, or “balancing down,” of daily news content is having the effect of pumping high-octane fuel into the alternative news and analysis media.

By “alternative,” I mean primarily the Internet, where bloggers today are already beating mainstream news professionals at half their game—the half that requires a “journalist” to make the news interesting and enjoyable to read. Despite doing almost no original reporting and living in a parasitic symbiosis with the mainstream media, the influence of bloggers is expanding as rapidly as the MSM’s is declining .

Then there’s the kids. Surveys regularly indicate that citizens from age zero to thirty don’t seem to care or even notice what our august Op-Ed pages say. Lavished with a variety of news and opinion options unimagined by their parents, modern kids don’t seem to be migrating to MSM at all—even after they land their first mortgages—unlike people in generations past. What to do? More “features,” “trend” stories on reality dating shows? Another round of updates on Jen and Brad, Vince and Jen, Jen and Ben? Ben and Jerry? Or how about yet another “take out” on American Idol?

(There are few things more unintentionally funny than listening to a group of middle-aged and prematurely middle-aged newsroom cave dwellers—people whose daily existence is consumed by newsroom bureaucracy—argue and opine about what trends “our younger readers” demand be covered. If life is like high school with real money, it’s like watching the class nerds plan activities for the next cool kids’ party.)

Simultaneously, more and more of a certain sophisticated, already well-informed news consumer, in other words the ideal MSM customer of any age, is beginning to rely on the Jon Stewart style of fake news. What Stewart is supplying are the socially palatable (that is, humorous), argument-framing clues and cues for pursuing one of the most basic journalistic questions: What does this all mean?

If each of these attacks—the blogs, the kids, the Jon Stewarts—were a punch to the head, the flurry would have the aged champ slumped against the ropes, eyes swollen shut, and bleeding from a crushed nose. While the general public may be barely aware and largely indifferent to this watershed moment in news dissemination, professional journalists are obsessed with it. At the very least, news professionals fear that even if their network, station, or newspaper survives, they will live to see a day, certainly within the next decade, when they’ll be sharing their much-diminished influence and credibility with news writers who play by a far different set of rules, if any at all.

By any objective measurement, the business of mainstream news media remains enviably profitable. In stark contrast with hidebound, torpid, flint-chippers like General Motors and Ford, local TV stations and newspapers look like visionaries, with current industry-wide profit margins in the range of forty percent (and up) and twenty-three percent respectively. So if you’ve got retirement-in-Arizona dough sunk into any of the big brand names, good for you. But be prepared to liquidate on short notice.

This past spring’s report from the non-profit Audit Bureau of Circulation that newspaper circulation had dropped 1.9 percent nationwide in the previous six months hit MSM watercooler pundits like a pink slip from upper management. (That number was released after several Top Twenty newspapers were caught cooking their circulation figures—that is, engaging in fraud—to maintain ad rates.) Meanwhile, the evening newscasts of ABC, NBC, and CBS have declined 28.4 percent since 1991, and they continue to fall. Locally, the Star Tribune is an exception. The flagship of the comparatively small McClatchy Company actually posted a modest circulation increase.

Even so, despite consistent-to-precipitous circulation and ratings declines, media empires like Gannett, Knight-Ridder, Viacom, GE, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation are still providing their shareholders with a satisfactory return on investment. To paraphrase Molly Ivins, their profit margins have been pushed from merely excessive to obscene. They are floating the margins in part by denuding their labor-intensive news operations to squeeze out more cash for shareholders, a form of self-cannibalism.

MSM journalists know they’re in a fight, and the brave among them speak candidly and publicly about what’s wrong, sometimes after they’ve left the corporate payroll. Former Star Tribune managing editor Tim McGuire, in a speech at Washington and Lee University this past May, springboarded off the comments of Washington Post executive editor Len Downie. Downie, still running the Post, insists newspapers aren’t dying. He says papers are just struggling to “adapt.” Right. And for a brief moment the dinosaurs tried to adapt when that asteroid hit the Yucatan.

But McGuire said, “I think Len is right. He’s also correct when he says one of the impediments to that adaptation is excessive newspaper profits. Len says fifteen percent profit margins would be plenty.” McGuire then added, “I do believe it is crucial that newspaper executives face up to the fact that they are milking their industry for profits and failing to invest in the long-term health of the news-gathering and the advertising franchise.” He mentioned The Vanishing Newspaper, a new book by Philip Meyer, in which the author describes the current corporate news media dynamic as one of “harvesting the assets.”

Meyer is a former reporter and now Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and he has plenty to say about what newspaper corporations are doing to their products. (While Meyer is often credited with the “harvesting the assets” conceit, he cites Harvard professor Michael Porter for the original phrase, “harvesting market position.”)

“Managers do it by raising prices and reducing quality,” Meyer asserts, “so they can shell out the money [to shareholders] and run. I know of no newspapers who are doing this consciously. But the behavior of most points in this direction: Smaller news hole, lighter staffing, and reduced community service, leading of course to fading readership, declining circulation, and lost advertising. Plot it on a graph, and it looks like a death spiral.”

The “death spiral” image is now an oft-quoted standard in newsroom conversations. Another apt term is “de-contenting.” It’s a Detroit euphemism for discreetly pulling quality out of new models of established brand-name cars, while simultaneously straining to sell them to the public as good or better than ever. Less sound-proofing, cookie-cutter styling, cheaper brakes and transmission. Same price. Or more. To see how well that plan works in an intensely competitive environment, check out GM and Ford’s bond ratings. They could not be much lower.

“There’s lots of planning going on in newsrooms,” said McGuire. (The post-McGuire Star Tribune will unveil its latest, long-planned makeover sometime in the coming weeks.) “But most of the orders to find solutions to the industry’s deepest problems come with one instruction: Don’t spend significant money. I know several editors who have been told to research some radical new solutions, but then told to do it on the cheap. Publishers want to restore excitement to newspapers without spending a precious dime of that twenty-one to thirty-five percent profit margin. [It] won’t happen.” McGuire added, “When your franchise is under attack from every angle and you are obsessed with inexpensive, incremental solutions, then you are guilty of harvesting, milking, or negligence.”

One can look at local TV news for the model. What ails the mainstream media in general first infected local TV news. It is a virus that has hit most second- and third-tier daily newspapers. Conglomerates such as Viacom and Gannett and Fox have long treated their local TV operations like ATMs. (In the Twin Cities, Viacom owns WCCO, Gannett owns KARE, and Fox/NewsCorp owns KMSP). Each demands in excess of thirty-five percent profit margins from these stations, some closer to fifty percent. During the past decade, they have gutted reporting and photography staffs and budgets to achieve these goals. Newspaper companies and their institutional investors watched this process enviously for several years, before finally looking at each other and saying, “We can do that, too.” And they have.

The essential editorial criteria in the news cash-out formula is a new type of coverage. It is hyper-alert to tragedy, scandal, celebrities, tabloid pulp, sports, and sentimentality, and hyper-averse to seriously challenging local power entities—whether they are politicians, major corporations, or major advertisers. The overall personality of these operations is edgeless and reassuring. This requires constant vigilance to avoid too-sharp criticism and analysis, to cultivate a bland, vaguely fifties style of humor, and create a highly regimented docket of subject matter, tone, and vernacular—all innocent enough for a church picnic.

Local TV news has this style down to a crass science. And now the giant newspaper chains are realizing they can sustain fat profit margins with a similar mix of the tragic, trite, and innocuous. (It is worth noting that of the four major newspapers, three, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, are still primarily controlled by family shareholders, and therefore are less susceptible to the self-induced maladies of the publicly traded media.)

Moreover, one can track the deterioration in what might be called unique, original content—material local newsrooms are producing through their own resources, as opposed to grabbing off a satellite or wire. Here, you can detect the industry at war with itself. The corporate mandate to maintain very high profit margins requires highly constrictive budgets. This on-the-run belt tightening requires a new type of newsroom manager, more accountant than journalist, to reshape and redirect the news staff to produce the news “product” research says the public wants. Managers have no choice, or natural inclination, to be anything other than corporate sycophants. Maverick journalists and “original thinkers” need not apply for management positions in the new system; they are considered remnants, holdouts, and cranks of a bygone era.

Like local TV, editorial decision-making at newspapers today requires keeping a wary, worshipful eye on key, targeted demographics. Every media organization loves the attention of working mothers. But newspapers, especially those struggling for a sustainable foothold in their markets (like the St. Paul Pioneer Press), have no choice but to carefully marshal their diminishing resources in hopes of creating some appeal to upper-income suburbanites.

The point is that too many newspaper managers are now bred, trained, indoctrinated, and “incentivized” to manage budgets, not writers and stories. The new manager lives in an insulated echo chamber, constantly exchanging boilerplate corporate prattle among his or her management peers and superiors, and issuing too-frequent-to-be-credible “red alerts” rushed out for employee consumption—and despair. It’s a fair question whether this new crowd are journalists at all. But whatever they are, they are unequipped to maneuver effectively and courageously in today’s landscape. They are also profoundly uncomfortable with anyone who fails to show the same kind of fealty to corporate policy as they do.

Davis “Buzz” Merritt was a forty-three-year employee of the Knight Ridder corporation, twenty-three as editor of the Wichita Eagle. The company is widely regarded as a prime offender in the harvesting syndrome described by Meyer and McGuire. Merritt has written his own book, Knightfall, on the fate of his former company and, by extension, much of mainstream media. In it, he discusses the shift from the values of the Knight family, which had demonstrated a long-term commitment to re-investing in journalism as a way to sustain influence, to the current operators, the Ridder family, who, he argues, see journalism “as a business that just happens to be manufacturing newspapers.”

Once news is reduced to a vehicle for profit, says Merritt, it becomes very easy to lose track of what exactly the consumer is buying. He fixes on the notion that newspapers need most to protect the influence they have as tough, courageous truth-sayers. But that kind of influence is endangered as MSM tries to slide by with ever-fewer practicing journalists in management, and ever-less relevant content.

By the time the mainstream has fully squandered the essence of its influence (probably over the next decade, accelerating after the complete conversion to digital media), there will be at least three or four dozen marquee bloggers well enough established to declare parity with run-of-the-mill Op-Ed pages in both analytical acuity and readership. At that point NBC/GE might as well let Brian Williams read daily transcripts from Power Line and Daily Kos.

So yes, traditional news—news gathered by professionals operating under well-understood rules of engagement, where fairness and accountability matter more than speed and sensation—is very much under siege.

Some of the reasons for the great decline are external, contrived, and cynical, particularly the crackpot chorus that perpetually squawks about political “bias.” Dealing effectively with this crowd requires a vigorous one-two punch of offense and transparency. At the moment, institutional journalism’s reaction to new technology competition, like bloggers and cable, is like watching a group of dithering scientists, poisoned by their own success, scramble for the precise cocktail of journalistic, attitudinal, financial, and technological potions that will allow them to survive in a game that is getting faster, broader, more raw, more personally engaging, and far less conflicted by professional standards of “balance” than anything they ever imagined.

Of all that afflicts mainstream news, the “issue” of bias should be the one most easily marginalized and defused. Other than a few newsroom neophytes who don’t yet know what to think, every professional reporter knows the “bias” charge is fundamentally a political strategem. They also know that it is primarily a right-wing gimmick only recently adapted by the left. Yet, management remains flummoxed.

Generally, the preferred reaction to “bias” is to do nothing for the longest time, to wring hands, to tone down leftish columnists, hold another round of meetings and eventually announce the proverbial “nationwide search” for an unequivocally conservative Op-Ed or metro columnist, or both. Someone—whether they’ve ever reported a house-fire or not—who will act as a sop to conservative complainants and a counterweight for MSM editors’ own misplaced sense of liberal guilt.

The most effective weapon bias-chargers have is the editors’ own belief that they really are liberal (which is to say that in newsrooms, there really is a preponderance of belief in nutty fringe ideas like equal pay for equal work, civil rights, social security net programs, environmental controls, and the like), and that journalistic ethics requires them to provide “balance” on every issue.

This is nuts. A now-classic example of the kind of “balance” trap the MSM has got itself into was the so-called Swift Boat Veterans issue during the 2004 presidential campaign. The point was not that a Democrat, John Kerry, was the victim of a contrived, baseless smear. The point was that, rather than persistently assessing the accuracy of the charges of the Swifties, standard newsroom protocol required persistent “balance.” Six inches of quotes from the Swifties balanced by six inches of response from Kerry. Day after day. Eventually, readers were left with the “balanced” view that there was no truth and both sides were idiots. In terms of campaign tactics, Kerry has been justly criticized for failing to take the Swifties head on. But in too many news reports, that failure became a bigger, far more frequently reported story than whether what the Swifties said was even true.

Fully reporting and regularly declaring the Swifties’ tale to be the transparent lie it was would, of course, have left journalists open to blistering attacks from talk-radio hosts and bloggers, and probably also an uncomfortable chat with upper management. But the Swift Boat episode falls into a familiar pattern whereby the media’s quaint notion of “balance” has it reporting more on the fracas than the facts.

There have been other more critical failures by the MSM to place a priority on independently reporting and aggressively assessing the accuracy of basic information, as opposed to merely playing ringside stenographer to the political cat-fight. You can see it in the press pool’s anemic challenges to the White House’s months-long campaign for war in Iraq, and, more recently, the truly bizarre indifference to the so-called Downing Street Memo. To push harder, especially on the War on Terror, would have required a highly adversarial, public confrontation with a White House renowned for its “aggressive” reaction to journalistic impudence. But the point is that the lack of aggressive pursuit of the truth significantly diminishes the influence that is the MSM’s foundation. It is no coincidence that public approval of the MSM’s “job performance” shot upward dramatically in the aftermath of their entirely human reation and indignation to the government’s Hurricane Katrina response. Moreover, the chorus of challenges to President Bush’s rosy assessment of federal relief efforts was probably key to getting the president to admit, for the first time in six years, that mistakes were made and he was taking responsibility.

But the charge that the average newsroom is liberal in any remotely radical way is laughable. Don’t get me wrong, MSM newsrooms are more socially liberal than, say, the Rev. James Dobson, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Ralph Reed, and Rick Santorum. And they are also generally pro-choice, they probably vote Democratic in greater numbers, they believe in full rights for women, as well as—grab your garters—evolution, too. But that still leaves critics a very long way from proving a liberal agenda and systematic, facts-twisting bias. In my experience, ninety-five percent of reporters and editors are well within the mainstream of political attitudes, appropriately skeptical about every politician and every overreaching ideology. More to the point, like good bureaucrats everywhere, most reporters aren’t particularly political at all. Most are happy to get a good story, get it right, and get home in time for dinner and a little prime-time TV.

The right’s grand strategy with regard to the mainstream press is to diminish its once potent influence in setting the conventional wisdom of American culture. By relentlessly and recklessly asserting that everything about the mainstream media is biased and agenda-driven, starting with politics but including garden-variety reporting on the whole vast array of social issues and science, the hope is that significant numbers of news consumers will grow cynical toward the mainstream and turn to new news venues where party is more important than reality.

If you find yourself in a depressed, suicidal mood, by all means avoid getting trapped in an elevator with MSM editors and reporters discussing “what to do about the blogs?” It is truly trigger-pulling stuff. But what media managers struggle with most is how to maintain full editorial control. Which is to say, How do we blog within the same rules of professional journalism that are killing us in print? After all, blogs as we know them today are as wild and wooly as nineteenth century Deadwood, and often as profane as the HBO series. That thought terrifies mainstream editors. Blogging implies a voice that isn’t proper, isn’t necessarily dignified, and above all isn’t controlled by some kind of professional or corporate template.

The attitude and writerly personal style of blogs is most similar to that of the best columnists—metro, politics, sports, whatever—and mainstream newspapers are constantly struggling with how much freedom they dare parcel out to even those characters. Why? Because columnists are, for better and worse, the voices who most embody the personality of the entire publication.

The trend, in print, is not encouraging. Orthodox, lower-tier-MSM editorial policy is to be “empowering” to its home community. What that is assumed to mean is news that is encouraging, generous, uplifting, and unifying in both story selection and tone. But in effect, it delivers a product that prefers hugging to provocation. (Newspaper editors today still say they love “hell-raising.” But what they really mean is “heck-raising.”)

On the same morning that the New York Times’ Judith Miller was heading to jail in the Valerie Plame investigation, her managing editor, Jill Abramson, was telling a lunch meeting of the paper’s young writers to “push back” against their editors, and fight for their voice and for material that might ordinarily offend the Grey Lady’s sensibilities. “Not to start WW III with editors,” Abramson told the New York Observer, “But I wanted to consciously send them a message that we want the paper to be full of engaging writing and engaging voices.”

The reaction to this by a dozen or so writers at the two Twin Cities dailies was something on the order of a spit take. At the Pioneer Press “pushing back” against desperately overworked editors is regarded as an offense against nature, like slapping your mother. At the Star Tribune, the complaint is more that the editorial bureaucracy is so slumberous and complacent that a fight for creative voice is like ranting on the sidewalk outside City Hall. Besides, “edginess” is for the graphics editors.

Where the Pioneer Press has been essentially abandoned by its corporate parent, Knight Ridder, and told to “make its numbers” however it must with no significant infusion of resources, the Star Tribune is the flagship of the McClatchey chain. (The common view is that the Pioneer Press has been so weakened that its home turf, the east metro, is the Star Tribune’s for the taking.) But the Star Tribune, a second-tier newspaper where the Pioneer Press has now slid lower, lives in a comfort zone where it could afford to take risks with unique voices, but doesn’t. Instead, the newspaper seems to be putting its money into a massive redesign.

A prime example of the Star Tribune’s resistance to voice was the departure of sports columnist Dan Barreiro. The inability or unwillingness of the Star Tribune not just to accommodate Barreiro, but to appreciate his value to their influence, is startling. Barreiro, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is a “push back” kind of character. He’s a prickly, talented, aggressive guy whose columns were truly a must-read for any sports fan interested in the how, why, and you-gotta-be-kidding-me aspects of the industry of modern sports. Barreiro had other things to do, like a radio gig. But basically he was too iconoclastic, too opinionated, and too indifferent to criticism from powerful local institutions for the paper to properly control.

The same applies to my friend Nick Coleman, a guy who has forgotten more about the people and power launderers of the Twin Cities than any of his insulated editors in the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Star Tribune cubicle farms ever dared to learn. But Coleman, like Barreiro, requires special accomodation and appreciation. It shouldn’t be hard to do.

The bard of Anoka, Garrison Keillor, a lover of good writing and journalism, gave an interview to the Hartford Courant last April. He was about to speak to the 2005 National Writers Workshop and he wanted say something in defense of newspapers. It wasn’t easy. “I think that American newspapers have taken a very serious wrong turn,” said Keillor, “and that aside from a few newspapers, the quality of the product is in decline, especially for the reader, and I think that newspapers have forgotten that their readers are readers and love writing. Writing is what people want. They don’t want a sort of concept of journalism; they want writers. And writers are always individuals. This is what people turn to newspapers for. They don’t turn to newspapers for advice and for personal service and for sort of glossy pieces about lifestyle and home décor and cooking and how to bring up your children.”

Talking to the journalism trade magazine Editor & Publisher a while later, Keillor added that today’s newspapers “are too positive and upbeat, on the mistaken assumption that that’s what readers are looking for.” Sadly, what Keillor is looking for is precisely the sort of stuff many newspapers are combing out of what remains of their pages. I can tell you from long, personal experience the sour reactions and looks I got from any TV review or trend piece that wasn’t a giddy celebration of the sheer, bouncy fun of The Bachelor, Joe Millionaire, or The Apprentice. “It’s what our readers want to read,” I was constantly told, by editors fresh back from another mandatory meeting with the research department.

Newspapers are still the anchor of the mainstream media, despite the public’s overwhelming reliance on TV for breaking news. (Local TV news would implode if it didn’t have the morning paper to work from.) Papers still have the wherewithal to fight back against the appeal of the best bloggers. But in order to compete, they’re going to have to let at least some of their writers be actual writers, loosen their foundation garments, assert their opinions, employ more literary devices, and in general have some fun with the topics and people they cover.

Colorful, well-sourced columnists embody the fundamental influence of mainstream newspapers. They are a paper’s primary asset in the battle against Internet maurauders. If the New York Times didn’t think so, they wouldn’t have set up their stable—Paul Krugman, David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman—for separate, paid, online access a few weeks ago. Furthermore, every day you can check the Times’ list of the day’s “most emailed” stories for a snapshot of what readers want most from the paper. It isn’t lists of fun things to do with the weekend, or ponderously balanced stories on Supreme Court nominees. It’s the columnists.

The appeal of good, sometimes irreverent writing, beyond what traditional mainstream newspapering currently allows, is borne out in a study by Northwestern University’s Readership Institute. Lately the Institute has partnered with the Star Tribune, testing models for the newspaper’s long-awaited redesign.

The makeover is supposed to incorporate significant advances in online service, among other things. Many Star Tribune employees will be curious to see if it addresses anything mentioned here. Northwestern spent a lot of time assessing the tastes of those elusive “younger readers,” the ones who don’t read newspapers much, don’t watch traditional network news programs, and only leaf through Time and Newsweek at the dentist’s office.

What they found was interesting: A remix of news choices with hipper, more irreverent headlines and stories written with blog-like attitude—not Jen-Brad-Angelina-style celebrity junk, but actual news—was in fact more appealing to young readers than the stuff the Star Tribune actually published (they focused the study on the Star Tribune’s Valentine’s Day 2005 edition). The Star Tribune test material was very similar to Chicago’s competing Red Eye and Red Streak free tabloids. (The “Reds” are two free weeklies published the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune since 2002. They are aggressive efforts to lure young readers.)

“What is interesting and revealing,” says Mike Smith, managing director of Northwestern’s Media Management Center, “is that the Sun-Times and Tribune have found that adults, loyal newspaper readers, are picking up the free weeklies in far greater numbers than first imagined.” In other words, a general loosening of the more staid conventions of professional journalism may very well offer more upside than risk to mainstream media.

But lacking a relaxation of profit demands so counter-effective to creativity, risk-taking, and invention, the death spiral for most newspapers will probably continue. Few will actually fold. A monopoly in a market will always guarantee steady positive cash flow, no matter what the quality of the product. But as their irrelevance to literature-loving readers and aggressive news ferrets deepens, most will become glorified community newspapers and “repeater towers” for the handful of major papers and wire services.

As for local TV news, the gold standard for cash-cow-dom and exemplar to so many others in the industry, they had better have a plan for the day the first shrewd video bloggers fire up their own local newscasts in the looming all-digital age. They must offer Daily Show fans a valid alternative to the silly, ossified, lucrative formula of happy faces, bloody pictures, weather, and sports that sent viewers to the Comedy Channel in the first place.

Brian Lambert was the media critic at the St. Paul Pioneer Press for fifteen years. He left the Knight Ridder paper earlier this year after his “beat” was discontinued.