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Thomas Jefferson once famously said that he would rather have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers.
It is becoming increasingly evident in recent days that we rapidly are approaching the latter.
The 137-year-old Boston Globe became the latest arrival this week in a linotype hospice crowded with venerable newspapers on their last legs.
The New York Times Co., which owns Beantown’s largest daily, has informed the Boston Newspaper Guild, which represents 600 workers at the Globe, that it needs about $20 million in union givebacks or it will consider closing the paper in 60 days.
The Globe, said to be facing losses totaling $85 million this year without the cuts, is the latest in a long line of newspaper dominos that have been falling with disturbing regularity since the economy collapsed last fall.
Obituaries already have been written this year for print editions of the Rocky Mountain News, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The Denver paper went under, while the latter two said they would try to survive as online-only publications.
Major newspapers across the country—including the Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Enquirer, Los Angeles Times, and Baltimore Sun—have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since the beginning of the year. The deathwatch also has begun for leading dailies in San Francisco, Miami, Minneapolis and Cleveland.
As these and dozens of other newspapers circle their fiscal wagons, job cuts are being accompanied by service reductions and reduced page-counts.
Several papers have followed the lead of the Washington Post, which eliminated its influential Book Review section, and the Times, which reportedly is enlisting journalism students to cover outlying boroughs of New York City and New Jersey. The Detroit Free Press cut more than its pages: home delivery has been sliced to three days a week.
The numbers are stark. Publicly traded publishers collectively have lost about 39 percent of their market value since Jan. 1, according to USA Today. The Newspaper Association of America reports a 16.5 percent drop in newspaper ad sales in 2008.
Even before the economy tanked, the print news business was having its lunch eaten by the proliferation of low-cost local advertising on cable TV outlets. To make matters worse, the print behemoths only recently woke up to the fact that their failure to protect copyrighted content from free distribution on the Web has ceded a potentially lucrative new revenue stream to bloggers and other entrepreneurs who are more than happy to piggyback on the journalistic cache of the mainstream media without paying a dime for it.
Since our high school civics teachers always told us a thriving free press is essential to the functioning of a democracy—much more so than a Wall Street investment bank or a failing auto manufacturer—it would be logical to assume that the ailing newspaper business will be next in line for a government bailout.
Unfortunately, logic has nothing to do with it.
Let’s face it, politics in 21st-century America is an exercise in reality TV. Newspapers, when they actually do their job and try to keep the politicians honest, mess up the sound-bite driven story line.
Our political leaders first and foremost want to keep the TV moguls happy because their programming decisions provide homogenized access to millions of voters. Do you see any TV execs wringing their hands over the demise of the ”Fourth Estate”?
So if you want to avoid Jefferson’s nightmare and keep getting your loyal companion delivered to the driveway each morning, you’ll have to keep reaching into your pocket and fishing out those coins with TJ’s likeness on them.
Otherwise, the next time somebody shouts ”Stop the Presses!” will be the last time you hear it.