Is the Ink Becoming Invisible on Newspapers?

By: Jeff Shelley


There's a lot to be depressed about these days. The economy. Our nation's seemingly neverending presence in the war-torn Middle East. North Korea's nuclear capability. Global warming. Thousands of layoffs. And on and on.

But, perhaps most immediately, and frighteningly, is the impending demise of the daily newspaper in America.

I may write for the Internet, but I'm an ink-stained wretch at heart.

When I got out of college with an English degree in the late '70s, my first job offer was from a small newspaper. My starting wage would be $600 a month. I seriously considered it, seeing that I was newly married with a baby daughter and in dire need of generating an immediate income. I also applied for a job with an agricultural magazine in Central Washington that would compensate my untapped talents for about the same pay.

I didn't take either offer, opting instead to become a slightly higher paid tech writer. Soon after getting hired by an engineering firm to write manuals and data sheets, I began editing start-up sports magazines on the side. Tired of working for someone else, I then moved to freelancing, then golf books, and, for the past nine years, full-time with Cybergolf.

If newspapers die off, what will happen to all the other budding journalists coming out of college? Where will they start their writing careers? And what of the many wonderful scribes who've entertained us over the years who could be unceremoniously put out of work? That's happening right now.

Through all my 30-plus years as a professional writer I've devoured newspapers - mainly those based in my hometown of Seattle (the Times and Post-Intelligencer). One of these dailies, the P.I., will be closing in mid-March. The Times is suffering too, so if the economic push comes to shove, the Emerald City would become a zero-newspaper town.

The poor economy, diminishing ad revenues and the loss of subscribers are the reasons behind the downfall of newspapers, with the Internet allegedly the main culprit for diverting their traditional sources of income. Newspaper publishers were slow to react to collaring the online market 10-plus years ago, and they're paying the price today.

Reading newspapers is part of my meat and potatoes as a writer and researcher. I can be anywhere in the world, any day of the week, and have to go out and buy a newspaper. We were in Australia in January 1991 when the Washington Huskies were in the Rose Bowl playing Iowa. With no TV coverage of the game in Queensland, I just had to find the results. But there were no American papers to be found. Eventually, I went to a small library in Cairns and found a copy of the Brisbane Courier-Mail. Peering deeply into the agate type in the Sports section, I found the small header, "America Gridiron." Low and behold, among the entries was this: "Washington 46, Iowa 34." No game details, just the score. That was all I needed. I let out a whoop that everyone in the library heard.

During my past 20 years as a golf writer, I've paid for a service that mails me golf-related news clippings several times a month. Initially, I got them to learn about new courses in the Pacific Northwest to keep me updated for upcoming guide books. I later expanded the coverage to 13 western states. With the 2001 launch of our sister site, www.golfconstructionnews.com, clippings now arrive from around the nation.

For my purposes, these clippings are the only research material that gets to the local level. Several times a month, packages come to my office with clips from such exotic places as Daphne, Ala., Wallace, Calif., Huntley, Mt., and Dripping Springs, Texas, all with news about a golf project in the area. It could relay information about a troubled facility, or a course that will be installing a new irrigation system, adding another nine holes or getting a new owner (which is happening more than ever these days). Though the monthly bill has increased due to my national coverage, these "alerts" from the frontlines of American golf are my - and Cybergolf's - lifeblood.

I think any veteran golf - or sports - writer would agree that these cut-out articles are critical to broadening our knowledge of the industry. Most of us are good writers and researchers, but we're not THAT good.

So what's so bad about not having to wash printer's ink off one's hands after every morning's newspaper reading?

Well, what if the electricity fails and your computer doesn't work? What if the traditional bad guys - our bloated government, fat-cat corporate types, terrorists, sneaky multi-million-dollar bilkers, insurance frauds, oil monopolies, educational/insurance malfeasance and personal-information thieves - aren't detected and reported for nationwide distribution?

Are you comfortable learning about "real" news through blogs and text messages?

Newspapers are crucial to the continuance of American society. Thomas Jefferson, the man who crafted our democracy, once wrote: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Are we all going to now be turning to our computers for updates on the world's realities and dangers? Isn't there something "virtual" about that prospect?

Personally, if these newspaper deaths continue, I'll miss those five-inch-long reports from Podunk, U.S.A., that discuss the conditions - good and bad - of a community's golf courses.

I won't - at least not yet anyway - go so far as to say the loss of newspapers will lead to the evisceration of America's democracy. For the time being, I'm just wondering about the future size and frequency of those mailings from my clippings service.

[For more on the state of the American newspaper, read David Horsey's excellent op-ed piece at http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/opinion/400061_horsey15.html.]


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