Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Newspaper killers mourn the passing of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

I caught part of ESPN’s “Mike and Mike in the Morning” Sirius and happened to hear their discussion prompted by the end of the Seattle P-I. Both Golic and Greenberg pronounced themselves fans of newsprint and struck a mournful tone even as they admitted that new technology was killing traditional newspapers.

They were probably sincere which means they are remarkably obtuse about their role in the death dance of the local media dinosaurs.

Simply put, the success of their employer (hence their own livelihood) is based, in part, on sucking the life out of local papers all across the nation.

Start with the most basic economic realities. Audience attention and advertising dollars are finite. When one outlet grows its share, others must lose out. Declining media are hurt no matter if the growing outlets are blogs, talk radio, or cable channels.

ESPN’s success, to some degree, comes at the expense of local media. That is how markets work. These realities do not change just because Mike Greenberg loves newspapers while Rush Limbaugh hates the MSM.

ESPN is killing newspapers in other ways. For instance, they, like many primetime cable news programs, “cover a story” by talking to the beat reporters who are actually covering the story. In essence, they let newspapers bear the cost while ESPN or Nancy Grace shares in the benefit.

(I’ve long found it puzzling that publishers and editors let their reporters give away their expensive product to the competition. Don’t they know about unsold cows and free milk?)

It is not enough that cable takes without paying. As noted here, ESPN has degraded the product of local newspapers. At a time when these outlets need the best from their reporters and columnists, ESPN has pushed them to become less distinctive and less valuable. For every Woody Paige or Tony Kornheiser who becomes unreadable after they become ESPN stars, there are dozens of local scribblers who use their local reporting gig as platform to grab Bristol’s attention. Only a few like Rob Parker will pull it off, but all those failed Kornheiser wannabees still hurt the newspapers that pay their salary.

ESPN, with its national reach, is a big promoter of “teamless fandom”. Those fans best fit their business model. Hence, the emphasis on mock drafts, fantasy sports, individual highlights, and soap opera stories (like the sequential trainwrecks that define Terrell Owens’s career). Conversely, being the fan of a specific team is one of the best reasons to read that city’s newspapers. (I read the Post-Gazette online because it is the paper of record for Steeler Nation.) Once again, ESPN’s gain as they shape the sports media is newsprint's loss.

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