The Newark Star-Ledger is in serious danger of going out of business, as we mentioned earlier. Its publisher yesterday threatened bluntly to close the paper on January 5 unless it gets major concessions from its drivers' union. Even if the threat is a negotiating tactic, it also reflects economic reality. Everyone knows the business is rough, but wow: are we about to see the first major American city without a newspaper? This would be historic. And not in the good way. As the industry has declined during this decade, almost every newspaper has suffered economically. Layoffs have become ubiquitous. Foreign bureaus have been shuttered across the board as a matter of policy. Large metro papers, which dominate major cities but lack a national readership, have suffered the worst. Many (if not most) of them have pulled their correspondents from Washington and brought them home, to save money and cover local news, which is believed to be the wisest area of investment. The glory days are over. Salaries are down. Older, more expensive reporters and editors are urged to take buyouts. It's harder for aspiring journalists to get first jobs, or even internships. Papers have changed physically. Their pages have shrunk. Their page count has come down. Sections which once stood alone have been combined, all to save printing and newsprint costs. Two-paper towns are becoming a rarity. Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, and, of course, New York all support at least two sizable papers. But some of them shouldn't. Particularly in smaller or declining markets, it's a war of attrition to see which paper can hang on the longest. The idea that two editorial viewpoints are a necessity in most cities has been rendered anachronistic by the internet. Recent buyers of newspapers or newspaper companies have been disappointed. Brian Tierney, an ad wizard, has been unable to restore the Philadelphia papers to their former glory. Sam Zell is being sued by his own employees for the Tribune company's declining prospects. McClatchy wishes it had never bought Knight Ridder. What we haven't seen in all this, though, is a major American city with no newspaper. Everyone believes that a paper is an essential part of a city's fabric, like city hall and the jail and the local sports team. If Newark—a town with more problems than most—is left without a paper, who will tell the world what's going on there? Who will tell Newark what its own government is up to? Even bloggers should be humble enough to pray that the Star-Ledger isn't the first in a long line of papers that disappear and leave people with no forum for the local bickering, minutiae, and moments of glory that are the real American civics lesson. Print may be dead. But it shouldn't die before something better is in place.
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