Will newspapers go the way of the dinosaur?


WASHINGTON -- I have a confession to make. I'm a newspaperman. I've been a newspaperman all of my productive adult life. The unproductive part is between me and my editor.

My wife, Jeri, married a newspaperman. As she was reading the Washington Post's story on the Tribune Co. sale, she asked: "Are newspapers going to go away completely? Are we going to have to read everything on a screen, because that would just stink."

I hope not. I'm spoiled for honest work.

A friend of mine recently left the newspaper business. He told me it's the best job in the world.

"You know, you have to take less crap as a reporter than you do any other job," he said, laughing. "You're job is to give crap, not take it."

OK. I like that job description.

Problem is, there are fewer and fewer jobs like that. When I became a newspaperman in the 1980s, I knew I was taking a chance by jumping on this dinosaur. But, damn, the ride just looked like too much fun to resist.

It has been, too. What really pisses people off about me isn't my abrasive, supercilious attitude, though I'm sure that helps. It's that I'm having too much fun dishing out the crap.

Here's the supercilious part: I think I'm good for America. Hell, I think I'm good for the world. Well, not just me. I'm just one electron in the Brooks Boliek Nuclear Pile Theory of Journalism.

Every day there's me and there's the guys from the Times, and the Post, and the L.A. Times, and the Chicago Tribune, and that other entertainment trade publication, and the Village Voice, and all the networks, newsmagazines and wire services, and we're all fired out of a gun. We're all fired into the nuclear pile of information that will make up the day's news. Sometimes, one of us hits the nucleus. But if there are fewer electrons, there's less chance that one of us will actually hit on something.

My slice of the pile includes the FCC -- the nation's media regulator. The commission is considering allowing one person or company to own a newspaper and TV station in any market in the country. Reports on the troubles about the sale of Tribune often mention the difficult regulatory environment the company faces spinning off its TV stations. Frankly, I don't care what problems companies like Tribune have, as long as they make good copy.

My worry is for us electrons. If the combinations actually increase the number of us out there attempting to ignite the nuclear pile, then let them combine. If they reduce the number, then, well, that's a problem.

Those who want to end the cross-ownership ban say allowing the combinations offers the business a lifeline that can help keep newsgathering organizations solvent. I'd like to buy that. But Andrew Jay Schwartzman, head of the Media Access Project, which spearheaded the legal attack that got the courts to overturn the FCC's first attempt to ease the rule, told me that I was looking at the problem all wrong.

"TV isn't dead. Radio isn't dead. Newspapers aren't dead," he says. "Historically, new technology doesn't kill the old technology. It finds room for it. Somebody will come along and figure out what business model works and make a ton of money."

I hope he's right.

Yes, advertising is moving to the Internet, especially classifieds. It's more efficient. I'm a newspaperman, but the last classified I placed was on Craig's List. My old but still usable table saw was sold in two days.

Maybe that's the route I'll have to go, too. But something tells me the market for an abrasive, supercilious, crap-slinger might be a bit soft.