Opinion

Newspapers need painkillers in the Information Age | Andy Hobbs

In 2009, we witnessed the demise of major metro dailies such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Denver's Rocky Mountain News. More will follow.

Even the Seattle Times faces possible extinction, according to a recent AP report. The family-owned Times must weather this economic storm without the financial resources found at corporate-owned newspapers.

It is saddening to imagine the Seattle area without a daily newspaper. In today's economy, it would be suicide to start a new newspaper — or any mass-printed product, for that matter. The costs are simply too high.

HB 2122, which passed 91-5 in the House, would temporarily lower the state business and occupation tax rate by 43 percent for newspapers and printers. The bill, now in the state Senate, would save papers about $3 million to $5 million collectively in 2009-11.

In truth, the bill seems more like a painkiller than a lifeline.

Online readership and advertising for news outlets will eventually surpass their printed counterparts. Competition for news outlets has changed dramatically over the past decade. Online sources such as The Huffington Post and The Drudge Report blazed their own paths, countering the mainstream media while often breaking big stories.

The average Joe now follows that lead. In the Information Age, anyone can set up a news Web site or blog — at hardly any cost — and give it a go. Federal Way boasts its share of local bloggers with Web sites that comment on local issues. Among the better blogs are Chris Carrel's Hyleblog and the FederalWayan.com. If these sites start breaking news, the media game in Federal Way will change.

Indeed, we have a changing of the guard in terms of news delivery. Small local papers represent the future of journalism. Community papers hunt down hyper-local news, forgoing national issues for happenings in your own backyard.

Likewise, The Mirror's focus has evolved along with the Internet. Rather than thinking of ourselves as a twice-weekly newspaper, we must act like a 24/7 news outlet that happens to print twice a week. It's a new trick for old newspaper dogs to learn.

A blind arrogance has forced major newspapers to play catch-up with the Internet. Newspapers were once the only game in town, obviously taking their captive audience for granted. By the time newspapers got serious about the Internet, they were left holding the bag.

Two examples highlight the current climate of news gathering in Western Washington. The West Seattle Herald, long a community staple, now competes with the online West Seattle Blog, which was started by a couple with combined experience in professional journalism and advertising. Stories on that site are local, relevant, timely and credible. It is unknown how much money the couple makes from the site. But considering the number of advertisements on the site, we can safely assume they're doing something right.

In another example, consider Whidbey Island. Two of Sound Publishing's established papers on Whidbey Island (Whidbey News-Times and South Whidbey Record) met a new competitor this month when the Whidbey Daily News launched a web site. The island's voracious readers turned these two newspapers into community mainstays for decades. At first glance, the new Whidbey Daily News site looks sharp. Dig a little deeper for local content, and readers will find lower quality reporting and lack of substance when compared to the established hometown papers. It is possible that the new site could one day be taken seriously and sink its competitors. Regardless, the site reiterates a truth about publishing in the Information Age: Anyone can play the game. Publishing is no longer an elite practice. Even if printing presses are still play toys for the wealthy, anyone with enough gumption and know-how can find a niche and succeed.

Believers in the free market must also give credence to competition and the marketplace of ideas. No matter how many bloggers throw their hats into the ring of public discourse, the truth and best policies will always rise to the top.

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