October 27, 2009
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The Bundle of Newspapers Comes Undone

I am lying in bed early this morning, Linda is in the shower, and I am reading Daring Fireball on my iPhone and looking at this extraordinary graph of the collapse of newspaper circulation and I am thinking that this very unusual situation will lead to lots of the usual talk.

The Reactionary guys say that nobody wants to read these days, and they blame television and the public schools and the internet. The Cluetrain medics blame the decline of advertising, especially in a bad economy, and prescribe conversations. The Web fellows tell you that nobody wants to pay any more, and blame the internet. Rupert Murdoch proposes to make everybody pay for news on the Web by forming a big cartel and building a big fence, and while Mr. Murdoch has a great many dollars and I do not, I am not convinced that this fence can be built, and I suspect that the price-fixing laws might express an opinion on the subject of that cartel.

All these guys are missing the real story. Why have newspaper circulations — not just revenues, but circulation — collapsed so far, so fast?

The reason is that newspapers are a bundle, tied together with string. The link and the Web have been yanking on that string for twenty years now. When you do that at first, nothing much happens, especially if the bundle is big and heavy. But, if the knot comes undone, very suddenly papers are flying all about and you no longer have a bundle at all.

The newspaper we know in the US is a bundle, created (roughly speaking) by Pulitzer and by Hearst. At one time, everyone is buying a paper — some paper — because every one wants to know something. If you want to know what the President is going to do next, you buy the paper. If you want to know who wins the third at Aqueduct (where wallets go to die), that is in the paper too. If you want to know when the movie about Guys And Dolls is going to start, you get the paper and look it up. If you want to know the closing price of hog bellies, T-Bills, or Pan Am, it is in the paper too, along with which ships are arriving at the pier and which fashions are departing in Paris.

Now, these papers are not interchangeable; and that is why we have Mr. Pulitzer, who invents what we call the good paper, and Mr. Hearst, who invents the other kind. My mother is at one time a newspaper woman, and though she is a nice Jewish girl from a nice socialist family, she works for Mr. Hearst, who is not socialist, or Jewish, or nice except that he pays my mother very well and invites her to swell parties. I mention this just to explain my biases, as the FCC wants me to do. But all the newspapers are big bundles. This guy is a mensch and wants to read the Forward, and that putz, who is hardly more educated than a neanderthal, likes the Sun. But if the Herald-Tribune or the Sun or Forvertz want you to buy their paper, they need to have theater reviews and stock prices and pretty girls and the latest on pork bellies and of course the eighth at Saratoga. Besides, the Sun has Archy and Mehitabel.

But all these papers are bundles. This happens naturally, because these papers all need huge printing presses, and they keep stables of horses and teamsters (and now fleets of trucks) to make and deliver the paper. This is why newspapers organizations are so large.

And,now, very suddenly, the Web yanks on that string and the bundle is not a bundle but instead is paper flying all about. If you want to know when a movie starts, you use your cell phone. If you want the winner at Aqueduct, it has a Web site. Josh Marshall will tell you what the president is thinking, and Matt Drudge will tell you where he ought to go, and Craig will tell you who is wishing to sell you their sofa or their car. If you are the kind of guy who buys the paper for the stock prices or the funnies, you go online and read them and you do not get whole sections of book reviews and fashion advice and gossip about people you do not know.

For some years, the Web is inconvenient and expensive and slow, and many things the newspapers do are still better in the newspaper than elsewhere. But the Web is always improving, and with ubiquitous iPhones and Kindles you can find out about the Cubs without unfolding a paper, or buying one, and if you are really interested in the Cubs you can read seven columns about the Cubs from seven different angles and you are not reading about fashions or Fassbinder while your train is stuck again at Downtown Crossing and you have nothing else to do. Even if Mr. Murdoch got you to pay him to read his writer’s take on the Cubs, it would not help him much because you will buy only the part about the Cubs, there being no reason for you to take the part about Fassbinder because it does not come tied up with the real story about the bottom of the eighth with two out and runners at the corners.

So that is why the collapse is so sudden and so complete. The knot has come loose. Those astonishing iPhone numbers, and the success of the Kindle, are for newspapers the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

I am also reading this morning in Jimmy Breslin’s wonderful biography of Damon Runyon that Runyon stole his style from Coleridge, and that it is nothing more than writing in the first person present, combined with avoidance of contractions at all times. I am thinking this is not quite the whole story, but Breslin is a smart fellow and I thought I might take it out for a spin.