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Final Delivery

The dead-tree dailies of the media world keep getting chopped by declining circulation, dwindling advertising and an ever-enveloping Internet. Can we, should we —could we — live without a daily newspaper?

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If the newspaper disappears and no one is reading it, does it make a sound?

The recession has claimed many victims in the last two years; newspapers are no different. Several national newspaper chains have filed for bankruptcy and at least two major dailies have gone out of print — the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News in Denver ceased publication earlier this year. Even stalwarts such as The New York Times are drowning in a sea of debt and red ink. Most analysts predict that daily newspapers will survive this recession. After much restructuring and cost-cutting, papers are leaner than ever and well-positioned for a rebound.

But something else happened during the economic freefall: The invincibility of major dailies — a myth, perhaps — was exposed. People have predicted the death of dead-tree journalism for years, but in early 2009 what had been arms-length pontificating found its way into the publisher's suite. If readership continues to decline, as it has steadily since the late 1980s, the future is closer than anyone previously thought: Daily newspapers will cease to exist.

The reverberations ring out.

“I think if the metropolitan paper as a class fails this country will suffer a grievous blow,” says Conrad Fink, professor of newspaper management at the Grady College at the University of Georgia. “I don't believe the American public really is aware or cares about this. These papers are crucial, essential to local democratic government.”

One such metropolitan daily, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, fights for survival. Much of the most profitable advertising base of Media General Inc.'s flagship newspaper has dissipated — namely its classified retailer circular ads. As the real estate market tanked, so did home listings; as car sales declined drastically, so did dealer advertising; as jobs disappeared and local corporations went belly-up, so did help-wanted ads.

After years of having one of the highest-paid newsrooms in the state — in no small part because of efforts by its reporters' union — the Times-Dispatch has been forced to drastically cut costs, fire longtime, experienced reporters and columnists, restructure its daily content and make desperate attempts to increase readership online while reducing the size of its newsprint edition. (Excluding the Washington Post, similar efforts have been taken by the state's other large metro daily, The Virginian-Pilot, whose parent company owns Style Weekly.)

Financially, the strategy has shown mixed results. While the past three years have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and profit loss, the paper seems to have begun a financial rebound of late. Media General and its newspapers have overcome a 20-percent decline in revenues so far this year. In the second quarter, Media General reported net income of $20.6 million, compared with net loss of $532 million in the same period a year ago. (That includes other business interests besides the paper.)

But the question isn't will the Times-Dispatch — and other midsized dailies across the country — survive this year or next, but whether the paper is on an irreversible path to going out of business.

Times-Dispatch Publisher Thomas Silvestri agreed to talk with Style Weekly for this story, but his recent schedule prevented his participation. His efforts to transform the paper where he began in 1982 as a lowly editor have played out publicly during the past five years both in headlines about his battle with the paper's newsroom labor union and in a mixed bag of attempted changes in content, focus and format.

A few years ago at an out-of-state conference for media executives, he talked of a future in which Richmond's daily might publish a print version only two or three days a week. More recently, he's insisted that the company remains committed to its print product.

What seems certain is that most analysts and industry watchers predict that larger metropolitan dailies such as the Times-Dispatch, at least as we know them today, are on their way out. In his book, “The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age,” Philip Meyers, emeritus professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina, predicts that newspapers will be extinct by 2043 — and possibly sooner.

Reports of print newspapers' imminent demise are greatly exaggerated, insists Virginia Press Association Executive Director Ginger Stanley, who suggests there's no cause to start writing the obituary just yet.

“I see their future as very positive because they have taken the hard and tough steps that needed to be taken to keep them profitable and to keep them current with what the surveys and the industry experts are saying they need to do,” Stanley says. “I'm sure it's not been easy, but I think they're starting to reap the benefits of the changes.”

Stanley disputes grim predictions of extinction for midsized dailies: “I believe as long as we've got boomers — and I think we've got boomers for 20 years — that we've got a daily print product.”

But 20 years isn't that long when judging long-range business strategy — and it's 10 years short of Meyers's grim prediction.

No matter what you think about the Times-Dispatch, the prospect of losing the region's incumbent watchdog is daunting. Who would keep government officials accountable? Who would cover the local government meetings, report on the School Board, dig up wasteful spending at City Hall? Where would the region get its news?

“A daily newspaper is a daily source of communication,” says Henrico County Manager Virgil Hazelett, whose position as administrator of one of the area's largest and wealthiest municipalities often means painful periods in the light of media scrutiny. “As a government official,” he says, “I don't always agree with that coverage. But if you don't have that, I think you're missing something. You're missing a part of life in the community.”

To be fair, there really is no answer to the question of whether daily papers will survive. To date, examples of major cities, even midsized ones like Richmond, losing their sole daily newspaper don't exist. And for the sake of full disclosure — if it's not obvious — it's impossible for us to explore this topic without bias. Style hasn't been immune from the recession either, seeing its own ad declines in the automotive and help-wanted categories in particular. Because the Times-Dispatch is a competitor of Style's, objectivity is naturally clouded.

But if the newspaper dies it will be a debilitating blow for all of us. One's opinion of the hometown paper's quality — legions of critics still refer to it as the Times-Disgrace — is irrelevant. Newspapers, mind you, aren't supposed to be loved.

Newspapers are, however, an integral part of democracy: Whether you're a reader, advertiser or competitor, the demise of the region's daily would be a black mark. It's the voice of the community, the gatekeeper of the public trust. The paper's reach, with a daily circulation of 186,000 and 214,000 on Sundays, dwarfs any other publication or TV news outlet. As the paper of record, what's first reported in the T-D sets the agenda for other media, bloggers, citizens, politicians, civic leaders and the community at large. If “a good newspaper … is a nation talking to itself,” as American playwright Arthur Miller observed in 1961, then losing our only daily represents something far greater than ink and paper.

Despite proclamations of bloggers and social media proponents, the Internet isn't the answer — yet. Local blogger John Murden of Church Hill People's News says that despite the increasing relevance of blogging, it's no replacement for the newspaper. 

“I never really thought of what I do as supplanting the mainstream news,” says Murden, whose site, despite his coyness, has led the news on a number of bigger-issue stories of late, particularly concerning property developers versus preservationists. “What I do is too small for [the Times-Dispatch] anyway. The stuff that we do to add value to the neighborhood was stuff that wasn't getting covered before.”

A paperless world would be far from the end of the news as we know it.

The Internet and social-media applications such as Twitter and Facebook have ushered in a new era of engagement for readers and drastically increased the availability and accessibility of information, which means more people consume news than ever before. All major dailies offer their content online, which will continue long after their print versions disappear. The catch is, print advertising represents more than 90 percent of the average newspaper's advertising revenue. And that's a good 10 years after most papers began offering their content on the Internet. Today, online advertising represents a mere 8 percent of the average paper's revenue.

In his business column for the Columbia Journalism Review, Ryan Chittum recently calculated the value of a newsprint reader versus an online reader, which offers an enlightening comparison. “Print newspapers took in $34.7 billion in ad revenue last year and had 49 million subscribers,” he reported in late August. “That works out to $709 per subscriber. … Newspapers online had $3.1 billion in ad revenue last year and averaged 67.3 million unique visitors per month. That's $46 per reader.”

While more people read newspapers online than in print, their value to advertisers is 15 times less than that of a print reader. What this leads to is a huge disparity in the cost structure of a newspaper, and if the trend continues likely means the end of enterprise and investigative journalism, which are expensive. The revenues online simply aren't enough to pay for the cost of a quality newsroom. That means not having the resources to allow a reporter to investigate abuses at city hall, for example, or to cover travel expenses to cover human-rights abuses in a foreign country.

“The key to it all is money,” Murden agrees, keenly conscious that his real job is in a Richmond Public Schools classroom. “I'm doing what I'm doing [online] in like an hour a day. What could a full-time guy do? Real journalists are important.”

No easy answer to the money question means no reporters for Murden, but also means fewer resources for the Times-Dispatch to send reporters to cover local government meetings, one of the most important functions of a daily.

Though Times-Dispatch executives maintain their focus on local news, a Style reporter was the lone media representative at a Chesterfield School Board meeting toward the end of the last school year. Turns out, dust had been settling on the long, empty press table at the back of the meeting hall for some time.

“I haven't seen anyone from the Times-Dispatch for a few months,” the county's audio-video expert confessed. Her county-owned cameras and recorders had provided the only record that county schools business had been done.

Michael Martz, a native of Petersburg, has been a reader of the Times-Dispatch nearly his entire life, and a reporter there seemingly as long. He's among a dwindling group representing the paper's institutional memory. He's also president of the Richmond News Professionals Association, and locked in a long, seemingly-quixotic fight to preserve reporters' jobs at the paper.

“Our news staff is half the size it was three years ago, and our ability to perform our public mission of newsgathering and reporting has been diminished,” Martz says, but “the need for a robust daily newspaper hasn't changed.”

“The paper is a watchdog over state and local government,” he says. “We explain issues of vital public importance in depth rather than sound bites. We observe and report the work of city councils, boards of supervisors, school boards, police and fire departments, and the courts.”

In one important respect, Martz believes just as his rival Silvestri does:

“The Times-Dispatch is not dying,” Martz says, departing from Silvestri's recent objection to a “Save the T-D” bumper sticker the newsroom union is distributing, “but it does require being saved.”

It's also worth saving, Martz insists. “We're saying save the T-D because it's an institution that this community needs.”

But therein the rub: It's unclear how much the public even cares about the loss of the kind of in-depth community focus provided by local papers. In a Pew Research Center survey of 1,000 adults in March, only 43 percent responded that losing daily newspapers would significantly affect civic life in their communities. Only 33 percent said they'd miss reading the paper “a lot.”

In the age of social media and the proliferation of blogging and news aggregators, the news often is driven by political commentary (Obama's school speech) and celebrity news (Chris Brown's community service). The trend online allows readers to customize news to their particular interest; newspapers, by contrast, traditionally do the prioritizing for readers.

Perhaps this is the most disturbing trend, Fink says. “Is high-quality journalism a saleable product? I think the signs are dismal,” he says, explaining that online readers “are gravitating toward commentary with an edge to it like Fox News, and away from thoughtful, in-depth journalism.”

Nearly three years ago, in a candid conversation in his Parham Road executive office, Henrico's Hazelett revealed a stunning belief and a prediction: that Richmond's daily newspaper was not long for this world. “I don't believe that the Times-Dispatch as we know it today will exist in five years,” he said.

Three years later, Hazelett's prediction has in many ways come true. The Times-Dispatch as we knew it then does not exist. A Monday-morning reader need only heft the bundle tossed on the lawn to literally weigh the difference.

Columnists once considered indispensable old friends have retired, been laid off or otherwise put to pasture. Some have disappeared from black and white only to resurface on the 11 p.m. television news. Monday's local and national sections have been combined into a single, napkin-thin section. The bylines of full-time reporters once trusted to keep their eyes on local officials' comings and goings are absent, much of the work they once did replaced by liberal use of altered press releases, part-time freelancers or wire feeds.

“We've always relied upon that written newspaper — that has been the basis or the backbone of what we have to do as a government entity,” Hazelett says today, expressing concern that the paper's transformation away from ever-vigilant community watchdog seems perilously inevitable.

“Should that go away,” he asks, “what means is there for a community critique — a community analysis of what we do?”

The potential that Richmond could lose its Times-Dispatch is not just a concern for Media General shareholders, he says, “It's a community concern.”

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