Sunday, July 31, 2005

Small Print

Judge Richard Posner's essay in the NYT book review concerning news, news organizations, and blogs will be the subject of commentary by bloggers whose readership is far larger and whose comments are far more insightful than mine. Let me then point out a small local story that I think has a bearing on the larger issues discussed by Posner.

This past week, Macy's announced that it was discontinuing several of its regional department stores. One of those slated for demise is the Hecht Company chain in the Baltimore/Washington area. This has been met with some gnashing of teeth in the local paper, since Hecht's is the last survivor of the four department store chains that once dominated the Baltimore retail scene. More significant, perhaps, is this piece of information tucked away in the penultimate paragraph of the article in The Baltimore Sun:
Local newspapers, which now get two-thirds of the companies' advertising spending, likely will be the hardest hit. Hecht's is The Sun's largest advertiser.
My understanding is that Hecht's accounted for about 5 or 6% of the Sun's total ad revenues. These revenues will not be made up, since Macy's already has a presence in Baltimore and it is unlikely that it will feel the need to increase its total newspaper advertising efforts.

Growing up in Baltimore, there were three papers: The Sun (a/k/a, the "Morning Sun"), the Evening Sun, and the News-American. Now, only the Sun survives.

In its heyday, it was locally owned. It maintained a fairly substantial web of well-staffed bureaus in foreign countries (London, Moscow, Tel Aviv, etc.) and in Washington. Today, it is owned by a large national media conglomerate (the Tribune Company) and has few independently staffed foreign bureaus. I suspect that its Washington bureau is but a shadow of its former self.

Posner does not directly discuss the plight of local papers such as the Sun. It is, however, part of the topic that he addresses.

Local merchandisers command an ever decreasing share of any local market. Big box national merchants (everything from Wal-Mart, to Petco, to Circuit City), tend to use advertising inserts that go with the newspaper. The revenue paid to the newspaper to deliver these inserts is substantially less than that which is earned by having ads in the paper itself.

Even twenty years ago, it was difficult to obtain national newspapers, such as the New York Times or the Washington Post. Today, I get the NYT delivered to my home every morning--by the same delivery person who delivers the Sun. Of course, I can also get virtually every paper in the country for free (except the W$J) via the internet.

In ten years or so, the Sun will likely still exist, but in name only. It will be nothing more than local content provided by a small local staff incorporated into a paper that is primarily written by the non-local Tribune organization. I suspect that the local staff will be of relatively low quality, since they will be underpaid and with little or no possibilty of long-term career advancement. Since Maryland and Baltimore are both rather small, there will be little indepth coverage of local political affairs.

There is an irony in all of this, since more money than ever before is being spent by businesses in lobbying legislators in Annapolis. A vigorous local press, while not an antidote to corporate influence on the state legislative process, at least occasionally rakes enough muck to attentuate the worst excesses. I suspect that, within a fairly short period of time, that window on the political process will be bricked-up.

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