It’s been the dirty little secret of newspapers for 150 years: Print all the news that’s fit to print except news about newspapers. Since the New York days of Bennett, Greeley, Pulitzer and Hearst, reporters have been sent out to stick their noses into everybody’s business but their own, something that has led to egregious press abuses.

When the Los Angeles Times urged on politicians a century ago to bring stolen Owens Valley water to Los Angeles and vilified anyone in opposition, it failed to report that Times owner Harrison Gray Otis was buying up land all along the water route.

So venal and self-serving was Otis (he called objectivity a form of weakness), that he provoked Gov. Hiram Johnson into one of great sesquipedalian calumnies of all time — made all the greater because it was completely improvised before a Los Angeles audience:

“In the city of San Francisco we have drunk to the very dregs of infamy. We have had vile officials. We have had rotten newspapers. But we have had nothing so vile, so low, nothing so debased, nothing so infamous as Harrison Gray Otis. He sits there in senile dementia with gangrene heart and rotting brain, grimacing at every reform, chattering impotently at all things that are decent — frothing, fuming, violently gibbering, going down to his grave in snarling infamy. He is the one thing that all Californians look at when, in looking at Southern California they see anything that is disgraceful, depraved, corrupt, crooked and putrescent. That … that is Harrison Gray Otis.”

The Times did not cover the speech.

The press’ maidenly modesty in not covering (or uncovering) itself is over. As the end grows near, newspapers have become, as we all do, obsessed with their own mortality. One can hardly pick up a newspaper today without reading more gloomy details about the approaching end.

Questioned about the Union-Tribune’s 10 percent circulation loss in the past year, Ed Moss, the new publisher, could come up with nothing better than, “others had much more significant losses.”

The problem, as readers of well know, is that the thing that is replacing the printed press — online news — hasn’t figured out how to make money, and therefore can’t hire many reporters and editors. Macy’s will pay 50 times more for a full-page ad of lady’s lingerie in the U-T than on its website. Result is that as newspapers and their reporters disappear, nobody knows how people will stay informed.

The trend among online newspapers and blogs is to concentrate on local news, giving short-shrift to national and international news The U-T, serving a San Diego metropolitan area of 3 million people, has closed its Washington bureau, meaning that the only national news it carries comes from wire services.

How much attention to you think wire services give to San Diego politicians like Duke Cunningham? Without the U-T Washington bureau, Cunningham would still be in Congress, and richer than ever.

The newspaper decline, as the New York Times has described it, has turned from an erosion into an avalanche. Daily national newspaper circulation now stands at 44 million, down from 65 million five years ago. In California, Mark Willes, former publisher of the L.A. Times, announced a decade ago that his paper was heading for 1.5 million daily circulation. Today it is half that. The San Francisco Chronicle, the state’s second largest publication with circulation of 550,000, today has half that.

The Union-Tribune, which had a daily circulation of 380,000 five years ago when I resigned, today stands at 242,000. Losing 10 percent of its readers every 12 months is not a recipe for staying in business, especially since private equity funds like the new U-T owner, by definition, are interested in money, not news.

The newspapers I’ve worked for all liked making money, but the primary mission was to keep the public informed.

Apart from Denver and Seattle, where two newspapers gained when their competitors went out of business, the only newspaper to show any circulation gain in the latest six month period was the Wall Street Journal. The Journal’s modest gain was a quirk, attributed entirely to an on-line readership gain. It is the only major newspaper to charge for its website and therefore is able to count its 400,000 on-line customers as part of its circulation. Newspapers whose web sites are free cannot do that.

The race is on to duplicate what the Journal is doing, to charge for what has always been free. The U-T is studying the matter. MediaNewsGroup, which owns several Bay Area newspapers including the San Jose Mercury News and Oakland Tribune, plans to start selectively charging for web-site content on two of its newspapers early next year.

The problem they face is that while readers may be willing to pay $100 a year to read the Journal’s unique daily business news on-line, who will pay to read the U-T online when its only original news is local news — which you can get at free at places like the VOSD? New versions of the Voice are springing up in other cities to challenge newspapers’ local coverage. Last month Politico, a successful national political website, revealed plans to start a new site to cover Washington local news, challenging the Post on its own turf. The Journal is about to do the same in New York City.

The problem for regional newspapers like the U-T is that they are trapped in a vicious circle. Since revenue falls as circulation falls, the only way to stay profitable is to cut costs, that is, cut reporters and bureaus. The U-T has half the news staff it had five years ago. As coverage shrinks, so do circulation and revenue, leading to more staff cuts.

The real danger, which has been clear in San Diego for some time, is that as circulation falls newspapers will concentrate news coverage on up-scale, affluent areas that advertisers want to reach. La Jolla and University City will be better covered than Lemon Grove and National City because that’s where the money is.

The Dallas Morning News already restricts its delivery area and has been raising its subscription price to weed out less affluent subscribers.

That may be a good business model — cater exclusively to people who shop at Nieman-Marcus — but it is a lousy newspaper model. If that’s the only way to save the printed press then it’s not worth saving.

(Correction: The original version of this column incorrectly reported the Union-Tribune’s 10 percent circulation loss as being over the last six months. The measurement was for a six-month period, but compared on an annual basis. It compared April-September 2009 circulation versus April-September 2008. A reference that the paper has lost 20 percent of its readership over 12 months, therefore, has also been changed to 10 percent. We regret the errors.)

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.

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