Let’s start with remarks made yesterday by Charles Munger, a newspaper executive and a vice chairman at Berkshire Hathaway, which until not long ago was snapping up small papers across the country but has since reversed course and sold off all those papers. Munger said: “Technological change is destroying daily newspapers in America. The revenue goes away and the expenses remain and they’re all dying. They’re all going to die. It’s a sad thing.”
And then came the news this morning that McClatchy, the parent company of the Star-Telegram, is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. You might recall that McClatchy, struggling to meet its pension obligations, had already slashed costs back in the summer of 2018. I wrote then that the Star-Telegram had been gutted. Yes, it is a sad thing.
Which brings me to the Dallas Observer. No, it’s not a daily newspaper. But it faces the same challenges. Patrick Williams, the weekly’s editor, published a letter this week seeking donations from readers. His letter, in part:
It was a sweet setup: Sell ads to pay reporters, dig up the truth (or at least some honest opinions) without fear or favor and give it away to people who care.
Then … the Internet. Silicon pirates scooped up the ad money but kept the free-news part. Sadly, reporters insist on eating, so the result here and elsewhere is what’s being called a crisis in local news coverage, as in, if no one pays, who’s going to sniff out all this priceless truth? …
Maintaining a staff of nosy iconoclasts costs money, though, so we’ve developed new online advertising models, including auto-play video. The response from readers has been vocal and unanimous: They make reading our stories difficult. We hear you, and we don’t disagree, so we have a deal. We’ll still sell ads, and we’ll still scour the city, but if you want a faster, smoother reading experience, starting right now you can pay a small amount and get access to our website without ads, if you pledge to kick in some cash monthly or annually. Don’t mind the ads but dig us? Help us with a one-time cash contribution or by signing up for one or more of our email newsletters. Or do nothing. We’ll still be free.
I’ve received some email from folks saying, basically, “Can you believe this? What the hell is going on?” Well, yes, I can believe it. Why not? Letters like Williams’ are rolling out from the other five editors across Voice Media’s chain of weeklies. They’re all dying. And it’s actually more than a sad thing. It’s bad for democracy. The number of newspaper newsroom employees was nearly cut in half from from 2008 to 2018, from about 71,000 workers to 38,000. And as local papers close, voters become more polarized. And while I don’t have a link for this next assertion, all the foregoing is good news for crooked people and idiots. With fewer reporters watching fewer council meetings and school board meetings, with fewer people writing about scoundrels and heroes, too, people in Fort Worth and Dallas and every city in North Texas and beyond are left more in the dark and less informed.
So donate to the Observer. Or pay for an ad-free experience of their site. I’m not sure whether it will make a difference in the long term. I asked Andy Van De Voorde, the executive associate editor of Voice Media, how the effort was going so far. All he’d say about donations and subscriptions was: “It started in Denver in late December, and thus far the response is running ahead of our expectations.” I hope that is the case. I hope that’s the case in Dallas, too. I hope the Observer and the News and the Star-Telegram all stay in business.
But, damn, in these digital days, it’s hard to keep hope alive.