I worked for a decade at the SF Examiner, a newspaper that was in a very similar position to the Seattle P-I, whose probable death-knell was sounded today when Hearst announced it would shut down the paper if it can’t sell it. The Examiner, too, was owned by Hearst, and it, too, was the “number two” paper in its community, and it, too, was perennially in financial distress, despite being part of the legal monopoly known as a Joint Operating Agreement. JOAs were the product of a Federal law called the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970 that was intended to save “number two” newspapers from disappearing and leaving monopolies in their wake.
JOAs couldn’t really change the long-term dynamic of the news industry (lobbiers for the ludicrous idea of a federal newspaper bailout, take note!), but they saved some jobs and kept some troubled papers on artificial life support for a few decades. The main thing they accomplished was to preserve editorial competition. Two papers meant that there wasn’t just one person covering city hall but two. There wasn’t just one sportswriter covering the hometown team’s ups and downs but two. There wasn’t just one daily-paper theater critic at opening night, but (at least for the big shows) two.
San Francisco became a one-paper town nearly a decade ago when the Examiner basically disappeared. (There is still an Examiner in SF but it’s a freebie that makes little pretense to the sort of comprehensive coverage real old-fashioned papers aimed at. For example, as far as I can see its idea of entertainment coverage does not include local theater at all.) And I think the Chronicle, the surviving paper (now owned by the same Hearst Corp. that used to own the Examiner and that’s about to shut down the P-I), is the worse for being a monopoly.
In the competitive sport of journalism as in the competitive market of business, two is qualitatively different from one. When there’s just one person covering anything, human nature kicks in. It’s easy to cut corners and rest on your laurels. Once there’s someone breathing down your neck, everything’s different: You’ve got something to prove. If you screw up, it’s far more likely to come out.
Competition doesn’t always keep people honest. (In my era, there was the case of the Chronicle dance critic who filed a review of a performance panning a particular dancer who, it turned out, had gotten sick and never appeared onstage that evening. As I recall, even the Newspaper Guild couldn’t save that guy’s job.) But it greatly improves the likelihood of journalistic diligence.
Plainly, the long-fading era of any metropolis supporting more than one newspaper is drawing to its final close. Are we then going to face an onslaught of the lazy mediocrity of monopoly journalism? I think we might. But the climate today is wildly different from the late ’80s and early ’90s of my newsroom stint.
Sure, most reporters today have far fewer peers to compete against. But on the Web, their work is subjected to much wider, faster and closer scrutiny than ever before. The monopoly that newspapers are winning by surviving in one city, they’re losing all over again online. Whether it’s the national correspondent whose work can be instantly compared with that of every other publication’s coverage, or the local restaurant critic whose goofs are immediately pointed out by legions of foodie experts on the paper’s website or their own blogs, the local paper’s contributors can’t get away with the sort of coasting that monopolies used to allow. And that’s a relief.