Newspapers in America are dying. That's the common refrain—and it is backed up by numbers. Over the past five years, two dozen major daily newspapers have shuttered their productions, and an estimated 40 percent of print journalism jobs have been lost over the past decade.
Case in point: Last week, The Oregonian announced it will cut distribution service to four days a week, and rolled out yet another round of staff cuts; all told, 90 employees, including more than 35 reporters, editors and photographers, will be released. While not shocking, the news was another somber step in the newspaper's death march. The oldest newspaper in the Pacific Northwest, The Oregonian has published consistently since 1850, nine years before the state was founded, and is the 19th largest newspaper in the nation.
Last week's announcement marked another low point in the rapid decline of The Oregonian, from its bustling decades as a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, for important investigative stories like detailing abusive detentions by the INS of foreign nationals and covering environmental disasters like the shipwreck of the New Carissathe on Oregon Coast.
The loss of America's daily newspapers should sound alarm bells as loudly as the Titanic sinking. As more readers turn to online sources and more advertisers (the bread-and-butter of print publications) also turn to social media, daily print newspapers have become more candidates for historical museums than for the breakfast table.
But, since Benjamin Franklin published the Pennsylvania Gazette, newspapers have been the so-called "fourth estate" of democracy, an essential part of the clean functioning of government. Really, without the Washington Post, would Watergate refer to anything besides a high-end hotel in D.C.? Or, without 24-year old Sara Ganim, writing for the Harrisburg, PA., daily The Patriot News? (In 2012, Ganim wrote an investigative story about sexual abuse of minors by long-time Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.)
Print media—and, in particular, daily newspapers—have been critical institutions in shaping America's political and social history, and fundamental in the growth of arguably every American city. Sure, some have predicted that online sources will fill that void, but so far those predictions largely have been shown to be more about a wish-and-a-hope rather than a viable business plan.
What is lost with the disappearance of each daily newspaper is, well, a lot. There are fewer reporters to watchdog city hall and to hold elected officials (and football coaches) accountable. There are fewer centering forces for cities—and, no, Facebook, with its belly-button gazing, has proven that it does not replace newspapers as true community builders.
Sure, weekly newspaper—like the Source and Eugene Weekly as well as the two weeklies in Portland, including Willamette Week, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for reporting about former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt's statutory rape of his 14-year-old neighbor—are still strong, and provide important coverage of local news (see James Williams' breaking story; pg. 7) and for news analysis (see Phil Busse's feature story about social and legal trends as they relate to same-sex marriage allowances; pg. 9).
But, by and large, weekly newspapers do not cover the breadth of news that daily newspapers traditionally have.
Yet, in spite of this bad news, we have a glass slipper to offer this week, to former Oregonian reporter Ryan Frank for raising $3,500 to foot a tab at Portland's white linen Higgins Restaurant to host those laid-off reporters for one last drink together. Frank's act shows dignity—and honors an old-school journalist tradition, raising a glass in the face of adversity.