In a couple of days - Dec. 31 – the newspaper business will arrive at the 27-year anniversary of when Columbus, the capital city of Ohio, was reduced to a single daily newspaper. The Columbus Citizen-Journal, once the Columbus Citizen, turned off the lights on the mezzanine of the Columbus Dispatch, leaving the latter as the sole arbiter of published daily news and opinion..
The end came for the CJ in 1985 when the Dispatch’s owners informed the CJ’s parents, Scripps-Howard, that it would not renew the joint-operating agreement carved out in 1959 that placed advertising and circulation in the hands of the Dispatch. In return, the Dispatch shut down its morning Ohio State Journal and Scripps agreed to close the Citizen and move its shrinking news staff to the Dispatch building, where it would soldier forward as a Sunday-less morning paper as the Dispatch prospered on the floor above. The set-up encouraged A.J. Liebling to describe the papers in a trip to Columbus as “two hermit crabs living in the same shell.”
Not good, despite the upbeat forecast by the Citizen’s editors of a brighter future for the paper that had grown pale and undernourished just down the street. (As a reporter remarked at the time, the creaking Citizen’s air conditioning was quite convenient: “You opened the windows in summer and closed them in the winter”.
I mention this today because the current shrinkage in the newspaper industry had already become quite advanced in Ohio: Scripps eventually closed all of its dailies in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati as well as its Columbus news bureau that served several papers across the state.
The prospects for newspaper jobs today are even worse. In Cleveland, one of three Guildsmen at the Plain Dealer will lose jobs with the forthcoming cuts of 58 positions from a pool of 168. That will occur after Jan 31, when the current Guild contract prohibiting layoffs expires. Meantime, the news room staff will be heading to the office each day in a state of suspended animation about the identities of the unfortunate and yet unnamed Guildsmen on the hit list.
Some of the reasons for the industry’s date with demise may be accurate. Some not. Surely the digital age has taken a heavy toll. Unlike the institutions that they cover, newspapers are seldom forthright about their own in-house problems, particularly disclosures about their profits. From the standpoint of profit, papers are earning less money today. But they were belt-tightening in behalf of shareholders a generation ago. As the metropolitan editor at the Beacon-Journal in the ’80s, I encountered frequent hiring freezes that left desks unattended. Later, as a columnist, I was forced to share a computer with promises from above that some day another would arrive. (It didn’t)
Was the BJ that desperate? There were forever rumors that the paper was earning at least a 20 pct. profit (never denied by the Ridders who controlled the purse strings) but the figures were not available. One writer suggested that Tony Ridder, the big guy in the front office in San Jose, was spending too much time getting advice from Wall Street on how to up the profit to at least 25 pct!
But there were other problems. Who, in his right mind, decided to give away a newspaper’s daily content on line – free of charge! The foolish idea seemed to be that an on-line presence would more than cover the cost of lost subscriptions with a new source of advertising.
Among the new crop of editors were some who insisted that readership could be salvaged by cosmetics – great splashes of color with shorter and shorter texts. We all know how that turned out. A newly arrived BJ executive editor even banned the popular weekly columns by beat writers covering city hall, the courthouse, labor and education because he believed it would compromise the reporter’s objectivity.
And this was how the paper was going to cut its losses in a fast-moving society that grow more reliant on the Internet every day?
You begin to understand the dark path ahead when the Dispatch works overtime to lift Gov. Kasich to new heights without recalling that he once said that he very rarely reads Ohio newspapers because “they never give you an uplifting experience.”
Maybe they’ll be able to do something about that, Guv - in their next life.