Another Painful Cut For Journalism (And Democracy) In Our City

Nov 18, 2019

There was a sad but inevitable announcement last week: The Charlotte Observer is eliminating one of its days in print.

Sometime next year, there will no longer be a printed edition of the Observer on Saturdays. It’s part of a cost-saving measure by McClatchy, the paper’s corporate owner. All 30 of the company’s papers nationwide are doing, or have already done, the same thing.

If you’re under a certain age – let’s say, you never listened to music on cassettes – then this might not matter to you. But for the rest of us, it’s one more piling knocked out from under the pier – not just for the newspaper business, but journalism as a whole.

I worked for the Observer for 23 years. My wife worked there for 26. We still have close friends there. Even though I now work here at WFAE, one of the paper’s competitors, the ink is still deep in my blood. Reading the printed paper every morning is like taking a shower or brushing my teeth. It’s the daily routine.

And for 100 years or more, millions of Americans followed that same routine. People thought of the paper as a public utility. If you turn on the faucet, you expect water to come out. If you look on your front steps, you expect the paper to be there.

But when the Internet arrived, the newspaper business changed for good. Why is the paper so much smaller now? Because classified ads ran off to places like Craigslist and eBay, and display ads fragmented across a million different websites. The reason a paper cost only a quarter a day was that advertisers paid most of the cost. When they left, papers cut staff to save money. That shrunk the paper, in size and scope. Which meant readers started leaving, too. That has become a death spiral that most papers have been unable to escape.

The big national papers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal still thrive. Small-town papers in many places still do well because they have news that readers can’t get anywhere else. But the papers in the middle, in places like Charlotte, are in deep trouble.

There are lots of other ways to get your news now. But in nearly every city, there are fewer professional journalists than there were 10 or 20 years ago. That makes it harder for citizens to know what’s going on, and easier for the corrupt among us to get away with things.

“Democracy dies in darkness.” That’s the official slogan of the Washington Post, and the unofficial slogan of every journalism shop around. We’re one of the only businesses that tells you what you need to know instead of what you want to hear. That makes us unpopular in a lot of places. It also makes us necessary for a free society. Losing one day of print delivery might not sound like much. But it makes the light a little bit dimmer.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.