Guest column: Quick: How fast can we replace newspapers?
My hometown newspaper died the other day. Oh, it won't admit it. Like a chicken that's been decapitated it's still running around in circles, but it's all over but the plucking. The paper in question is the Ann Arbor News which last month announced it was discontinuing its printed versions on all but two days a week, Thursdays and Sundays. The rest of the time it would exist exclusively online.
There's a lot of that going around these days. Both the Detroit papers, the News and the Free Press are going to a print-internet hybrid and the Christian Science Monitor has abandoned paper altogether. It is now a very elaborate blog.
There's nothing wrong with this, I guess, if you enjoy firing up your computer over your morning coffee to browse through the news. I don't.
I like the feel of a newspaper, especially in the morning when I can depend on it to soak up the excess moisture on my coffee cup. I like it because I can read it on the bus on the way to work or in the bathroom. I can start a fire in the fireplace with it or use it to discipline a dog. Many is the time I've used one for an umbrella.
I do not expect people of the younger persuasion to sympathize with my sense of loss at the disappearance of real newspapers. They think meaningful communication requires noise.
The idea behind the switch to a hybrid version of papers is to limit the print version to the two or three most profitable days of the week, when the paper is heavy with ads. Color me skeptical.
Reading newspapers is, as much as anything, a matter of habit. Each morning (or evening) a physical object presents itself on your doorstep and says: "Read me." So you do. An object that says: "It's Thursday, time to break your habits of the week and read me" is far less compelling. Not that people are rushing to read newspapers anyway. In the past year or so 100 papers, the Rocky Mountain News among them, have ceased to exist. The San Francisco Chronicle announced it was losing $1 million-a-week and might have to close, which would make San Francisco the first major American city to be without a newspaper.
The New York Times is threatening to close its sister publication, the Boston Globe, and has asked its own employees to take a "temporary" pay cut.
Some of the biggest and best papers in the country---the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times---have filed for bankruptcy.
Staffs everywhere are being cut to the bone and Washington and foreign bureaus have become endangered species.
There are those who are sanguine about the fading American newspaper. They say that it is merely the victim of a superior technology, in a long line of similar victims, like buggy whips for example.
To which I say: No. Newspapers are not buggy whips. They are nothing like buggy whips. They are more important.
They live at the very center of democracy. They provide and organize the information that allows a citizenry to govern itself.
Can the Internet do that? Technically yes but it's doubtful that it will, not on a consistent basis. Gathering the news is simply too expensive an enterprise to be supported by the frail revenue sources of the Internet.
What you will get is a combination of opinion and semi-fact that pretends that Wikipedia is as reliable as the New York Times and Matt Drudge can be trusted.
In addition you will lose that sense of community that even a mediocre paper brings to its hometown.
And your coffee cup will leave a ring on the table.
Don Kaul is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-losing Washington correspondent.