Murdoch declares war in the last great battle of the barons | Media | The Observer
An online revolution has swept through the media world battering every newspaper in the country – taking away readers, slashing ad revenues and wiping out jobs. Blogs and websites fill the internet with the latest breaking news or commentary and they do it for free. Younger people rarely read newspapers, considering them as out-of-date as vinyl records or videotapes.
This year a tipping point was reached. ‘It was the perfect storm,’ says Jack Lule, a journalism professor at Lehigh University. The litany of disaster is long: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution lost 73 jobs, the Modesto Bee 160, the Cincinnati Enquirer 50, the Birmingham News 80, the Newark Star-Ledger 200, the Orange County Register 90. That is just a sample. Some 85 per cent of large daily newspapers lost jobs. So far in 2008, more than 7,000 people have been laid off. Old hands, such as former New York Times editor Raines, see it as a catastrophe. He used to tell media students worried about the future that he cared only that newspapers survive until 2008, as he had to retire then. ‘I meant it as a joke,’ he says. ‘But 2008 turned out to be the real watershed.’
The change will have a profound impact on America. Optimists point out that the internet has democratised information, allowing anyone to publish or comment. It has ended the role of journalists as gatekeepers of information, dictating what the public should know.
But, at the same time, the loss of a vibrant newspaper culture worries those in the industry, who fear especially the decline of the investigative journalism that once defined top newspaper reporting. ‘It will be terrible for civic society. For today and the foreseeable future the vast majority of investigative journalism is done by newspapers, not by bloggers. The average citizen will get much less information and, sadly, most people are not aware of that,’ says Charles Kaiser, who writes the Full Court Press media column for Radar magazine.
It is a grim vision of the future and pessimism is not hard to find. Nor is anger that it has come to this – that American newspapers have realised too late that their audience has left them and their world has changed.
In speaking of the future, Wolff, one of New York’s top media writers, is clearly angry. His voice rises to a mix of rage and despair. ‘I don’t think there will be a newspaper industry in 20 years,’ he says. As for the current crop of editors who, perhaps, woke up too late to the new reality: ‘They are fucking imbeciles. They deserve it and they deserve it in a profound way.’
Raines, too, sees only a dark future for newspapers brought on by the new technology. In his Southern drawl, he recounts the story of his father, whose first job was working in a horse-collar factory in a small Alabama town. Then one day he watched in amazement as a motorcar drove into town, ushering in a new world. Raines said the internet has done the same for newspapers: ‘My father didn’t know that car would put the horse-collar factory out of business,’ he says. ‘But it did, of course.’
Set against this backdrop, the war between the Journal and the NYT begins to take on a sepia hue. It looks less like a battle for future influence, than a fight from a past era. For, in future, media wars will not be fought between newspapers, and perhaps not even between newspaper websites. They will be fought between internet brands, blogs, online video sharers, news aggregators, gossip sites and things as yet undreamt of. They will not be fought in one city nor one country, but across the globe. They will not be fought with the buying of a newspaper, but with the click of a mouse, or a button on an iPhone, or a text.