Internet killing off big newspapers

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By Rick Howell

    In Seattle, Washington, it’s affectionately known simply as “the P.I.” The city’s daily newspaper, the “Seattle Post-Intelligencer,” has announced that it will cease publication and convert to an “online only” newspaper.

    The paper’s ownership made the decision after reportedly losing $14 million in the last year. Denver’s “Rocky Mountain News” had already suffered the same fate. It’s online now and not on paper only because some former staffers revived it on the Internet.

    Don’t look now, but the combined pressures of the ever-expanding use of the Internet and the current economic crisis is changing something that Americans past the age of 30 have always taken for granted: the availability of a big-city newspaper that can be read on a daily basis.

    Not just read, mind you; but held in your hands, folded across your lap, and tucked away just about anywhere until you can get at it again. Not to mention clipping out pages to hang on the wall or keep for posterity.

    These days, it’s all about a screen, something you sit in front of, not something you hold, fold, and turn from page to page. The place in our information universe we once thought would always be held by newspapers seems to be vanishing.

    It’s possible that in 10 to 20 years, very few print newspapers (that phrase would have been redundant until recently) will even be in existence. Small town newspapers, such as the one you’re reading, seem likely to survive longer than big dailies, but they have Web sites, too. How much longer will it be before even their readers decide that they don’t need both versions?

    Most adults today grew up with newspapers, not the Internet. But that’s not the case for the young. I remember how my dad would read the Sunday edition of the Roanoke Times, section by section, placing each section on the floor next to his chair when he was done with it.

    I’d wait for each particular section to hit the floor, then I’d grab it for myself. Today, in a dwelling cluttered with books and newspapers, my own son will ignore every bit of that to get to the computer. And it’s games or You Tube videos he wants, not newspaper sites.

    The Roanoke Times has also felt the brunt of a declining readership. The paper recently imposed mandatory unpaid days off (as has The Bedford Bulletin, which is owned by the same parent company) for its staff and raised its daily home delivery rate. It’s employees can be seen at various spots around the city giving away free papers in order to promote new subscriptions.

    The Lynchburg daily is owned by Media General, parent company of the Richmond Times Dispatch. Media General has also imposed unpaid leaves more drastic than the ones in Roanoke. It seems every daily paper, even in the smaller markets, has some concerns about declining readership.

    All of this is a terrible shame for those of us who love newspapers. First, can the Internet really present all or most of a newspaper’s unique parts: stories, pictures, comics, even obituaries? As much as I enjoy the Washington Post’s online version, it’s still not the same pleasure as actually buying, possessing, and reading the print version.

    You can skim through an online version in less than 30 minutes. Reading the actual print version of that paper can last for days. Besides, I’d rather turn pages than “scroll down” any day of the week. I guess those of us who feel that way are finding ourselves in a new minority.

    So, enjoy your paper while you can. Everything changes…but a world without newspapers is one change I’d rather do without.

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Rick Howell, a Bedford native, is a member of the Roanoke City Democratic Committee, and can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com