Up Front: December 2006

Paper losses

My buddy Doug Warren, travel editor of The Boston Globe, was telling me how it had just won a national award for best travel section among newspapers of 500,000+ circulation. “And if we keep losing readers the way we have been, we can win the gold award in a different category next year.”

He was making a joke, but the humor was of the gallows variety. The Globe is one of the nation’s great papers, but like many, it’s suffering. For the six months that ended Sept. 30, daily circulation was down 6.7%, compared with the period last year. Sunday circulation plummeted nearly 10%. If misery loves company, Doug’s paper has plenty of both. At The Miami Herald, where he and I worked together in the early ’80s, it dropped 8.8% daily and slumped 9.1% on Sundays. For all U.S. dailies, the Audit Bureau of Circulation reported circulation of 43.7 million, down from a peak of 63.3 million in 1984. Of course, there were more papers then than there are now.

These are the kind of vital statistics that lend credence to those who dub newspaper publishing a dying industry. For me, that prospect is as sad as the thought of a loved one’s passing. When I was a kid in Burlington, my family took three papers — The Daily Times-News, which I delivered after school and would start writing for at 19; the Greensboro Daily News, which I would jump to soon after finishing college; and the Durham Morning Herald, which my old man, a rabid Duke fan, got for its coverage of his beloved Blue Devils. Though he’s been dead nearly 40 years, I can still picture him in his plumber’s uniform, stocking feet propped up in the recliner and work shoes plopped down beside a stack of inky newsprint, with the glasses he never wore any other time perched on a nose buried in that day’s final edition.

I bought my first stock, Media General, at employee discount at the Winston-Salem Journal and accumulated Knight Ridder shares that way at the Herald. When I left to do magazines, I wound up at one owned by a newspaper company, and it was my stock in The News and Observer Publishing Co. that enabled me to purchase Business North Carolina eight years ago. But it was the work, not any wealth it brought, that I’ll always cherish. Twenty-one years after leaving the newsroom, I still sometimes dream, as one might of an old sweetheart, that I’m running the city desk with a big story breaking. You don’t reach my age without some regrets; one I’ll never have was choosing to be a newspaperman.

But that was then, in a different time and, in so many ways, a different place. Newspapers were different, too. It might just be me, but many seem to have lost their way. As they flail around trying to be everything to everybody — especially to those who don’t read newspapers — a lot of the suffering seems self-inflicted. Why, for example, would I want to read a front-page story this morning about what happened on American Idol last night? If I cared one whit, I would have watched it on TV.

It makes me sad more than mad. Those latest ABC figures show circulation of The Charlotte Observer, my local paper and the state’s largest, down 3.9% daily and 2.7% on Sundays in one of the nation’s fastest-growing markets. Then came this: On Nov. 14, a burned-out power line shut down its presses. About 156,000 of the 217,000 papers — nearly 72% — didn’t get out that morning. Just bad luck, I pray, and not an omen.