Yesterday we learned that the Detroit News is inviting every editorial employee, from the most junior reporter to the executive editor, to quit their jobs. If you work there and you decide to voluntarily walk the plank, they’ll give you one week’s pay for every year you were there, up to half a year’s pay.
That’s not a very good offer as buyouts go; a year ago, a friend of mine who had been a News columnist for many years was offered a year’s pay to quit.
The writers and editors have a week to decide whether to take it, and then, if not enough people walk the plank, their current owner, Digital First Media, will start laying people off.
They haven’t said how many bodies they need to throw over the side.
The announcement was greeted with gloom by those who understood what a loss this is for the community, and derision from those who see newspapers as essentially an obsolete nineteenth century business that is only hanging on out of nostalgia.
We need a name for people who think like that. I call them “technofools.”
Yes, daily newspaper circulation is less than half of what it was in the 1970s; advertising revenue has declined accordingly. Something like only one out of every five households now gets a newspaper delivered every day.
Michigan Radio is the best and deepest broadcast news operation in the state. But our news director, Vince Duffy, would be the first to admit that his staff can’t possibly completely cover Ann Arbor or Grand Rapids or Flint, let alone Ada or Flushing or Chelsea.
What’s happened to newspapers is very simple.
They were mainly supported by advertising, and vast amounts of it have fled to the internet, often to sites like Craigslist where ads are free. Newspapers do sell online ads, but customers are willing to pay only a fraction of what they did for print.
Newspapers have instituted “paywalls” to try and get customers to pay to read their articles online, but many people resent this and refuse.
They think they can get by with Google News instead, which operates much like a bird that steals other birds’ eggs out of their nests; they take stuff largely from free newspapers, hurting them further.
Newspaper journalism is not perfect, but it is collected according to professional standards that stress verification and accuracy, something that can’t be replaced by egomaniacs or ideologues ranting on blogs.
The result is a vast increase in ignorance.
Macomb County, the state’s third largest, is dreadfully underserved in terms of local journalism. Perhaps as a result, voters last week elected a county clerk who didn’t campaign, refuses to pay her property taxes, and whose house is in foreclosure.
Newspaper journalism has long been the main institution keeping an eye on those running government and society. Nobody has yet come up with a viable alternative.
Which means that informed democracy is dying. No matter how many really cool disaster pictures you can find on your smart phone.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.