Wednesday, April 8, 2009 | I have a brother who lives in Marin County, and he called the other day to complain about the fate of the San Francisco Chronicle.
The Chronicle, like the San Diego Union-Tribune and a great many other newspapers around the country is sinking, and my brother was asking if there was something I could do. He thinks I’m more important in the newspaper world — or what’s left of it — than I am. He knows I once wrote for the Chronicle — and for the Examiner before it owned the Chronicle — and he wants me to intervene.
He’s afraid of losing the Chronicle, a real possibility since it is losing $1 million a week. My brother is one of these creatures of routine, and his routine since he was about ten has always started the day with a newspaper.
He’s a kid brother, and at home he used to hog the newspaper, looking for his name in the box scores in the days the L.A Times still printed high school box scores, or at least line scores which were enough if you were pitcher or catcher, and my brother was always a catcher, that is, a little slow.
As he got older, he moved beyond the sports page to other pages like the front one, and his newspaper habit was joined by a coffee habit and then a running habit so that his entire daily schedule was thrown off wherever he lived if he couldn’t start the day with a jog, a joe and a journal before heading off to work.
It wasn’t always the Chronicle. He’s a businessman so he’s moved around a lot, and over the years he’s had the Tribune in Chicago, the Times in New York, the Sun in Baltimore and the Times in Seattle. Wherever it was, the paper was always on the breakfast table, where it remained until everyone had risen, read it and moved on.
For him, the problem with the Chronicle involves more than just the news. It is a matter of personal metabolism, circadian rhythms and yin-yang equilibrium, all of which will be at risk if the newspaper disappears. Despite my lack of influence with the Hearsts (are there any left?) I want to help. It does no good to tell him that other people are experiencing the same symptoms, that San Diego, for example, has just sold its newspaper to a private equity company, and look what happened to our good old L.A. Times when a private equity guy bought it.
As a businessman, he knows what private equity companies do, and not just to newspapers, but his position is that San Franciscans will be hurt more than people in cities like San Diego and Los Angeles because they are more sensitive.
So I tell him that the Chronicle hasn’t been what it was for years, and the newspaper he will miss isn’t worth missing any more. I tell him that his nostalgia goes back to the days when I was working up there, and he was still in college at San Jose.
We talk about Charlie McCabe, who always wore a derby and could be found evenings with his elbow on the green icebox at the entry to the Buena Vista Cafe; and Herb Caen, “Mr. San Francisco,” whose column you bought the paper for even if you didn’t like anything else about it. We remember Art Hoppe, and Lucius Beebe and Count Marco and Stan Delaplane, guys who wrote columns every day and never ran out of ideas.
You could not live in San Francisco without reading the Chronicle in those days. I remind him that Caen named the city “Baghdad by the Bay,” and ask him if he thinks that name would work anymore.
There are many people like my brother, and they’re all wondering what to do without newspapers. Most of them are people of “a certain age,” and so it’s possible they will disappear before the newspapers, which would solve the problem. But in cities like Denver, Seattle, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, Austin, Miami and Tucson newspapers have already won — or are winning — the race to extinction.
The problem is larger than anyone’s personal routine. The other day, a former colleague of mine was in town for the Revelle lecture series at UCSD, and I was asked to introduce him. Bob Kaiser is an investigative reporter for the Washington Post, and was speaking about his new book, “So Damn Much Money,” the story of what lobbying is doing to our democracy. Kaiser spent four years at work on the project, producing 24 articles for the Post and then writing the book.
There may be a day when a website, blog, cable news channel or magazine can assign a reporter to a single story for four years, but I doubt it. Newspapers have always been unique in what they did because they alone had the time, income, audience and commitment to do it. It was the right medium for it. Electronic news stories — even on very good programs like “See It Now,” “60 Minutes,” and “Frontline” — don’t have legs. No electronic show could do what Kaiser’s stories did.
Everyone has a solution for the problem: Newspapers are a public good and should be supported by government, says my erudite friend Richard Farson of La Jolla. He would free the press of its dependence on advertising to become print versions of the BBC or PBS. Yale academics David Swensen and Michael Schmidt are joined by New Yorker writer Steven Coll in arguing for philanthropic foundations to save newspapers. Surely Bill Gates and Warren Buffett can put a little of the money now going to eradicate AIDS and malaria in Africa into saving American democracy.
There are those of us, however, who believe that even if the medium changes, the message will not. If newspapers disappear — as network news is disappearing — it’s because something else has come along, and it’s not government’s job to interfere with the evolutionary process. The Huffington Post just received a $1.75 million grant for investigative reporting; ProPublica is privately endowed, and voiceofsandiego.org is set up much like public radio. All three, and others like them, are on-line.
Daily newspapers will out-live my brother and me, but maybe not by much. As long as they depend on advertising, and advertising depends on circulation, they will be vulnerable. If people don’t want them anymore, it’s because tastes are changing. It’s tough for my brother to have his coffee without a newspaper, but as I tell him, at his age he shouldn’t be drinking coffee anyway. And better skip the running, too.
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.