Stop the Presses!

Why newspapermen are the Fred Flintstones of the media biz, soon to be extinct. Sara Rimensnyder interviews veteran journalist Joe Cappo.


Stop the presses and tear out the front page! Newspapers are going down like the Titanic. You've probably been too busy stumbling through a blizzard of e-mail bulletins, Web sites, and other media to have realized that "the amount of real news available to the consumer" is diminishing.

That's a quote from Leaving Readers Behind: The Age of Corporate Newspapering, a new book excerpted in the May American Journalism Review by two of its authors, Thomas Kunkel and Gene Roberts. Kunkel is the dean of the University of Maryland's journalism school and head of AJR; Roberts, a former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and managing editor of The New York Times, teaches at Maryland. They make the case that corporations, slavishly devoted to evil profit margins, can't turn out newspapers that serve that all-purpose apparition, "the public interest."

Beyond basic questions of accuracy, their lament may be wholly beside the point: In order for newspapers to serve the public interest, one assumes they must first attract the public. And that's a tough order when potential readers have countless alternatives to the messy, unwieldy sheets of a daily rag. No wonder, then, that for three decades-long before the rash of corporate conglomeration that makes Kunkel and Roberts itch-newspaper readership has been in decline.

According to feisty but affable Chicago journalist Joe Cappo, manhandling by corporate suits isn't behind the creeping irrelevance of newsprint. Full disclosure: He's technically a corporate suit himself, as the senior vice president for Crain Communications, the well-known publisher of industry and consumer magazines. Cappo also pens a weekly column for the online Chicago Business Journal. Before dismissing him as a biased corporate blowhard, know also that he spent a decade writing a column for the defunct, privately-owned Chicago Daily News. On Thursday, I had a lively telephone conversation about newspapers with the refreshingly blunt Cappo.

Q. Kunkel and Roberts says corporate takeovers are hurting newspapers, or at least "leaving readers behind." Are they right?

A. The problem with newspapers and with the title of that book is that they've got it all wrong. It's not that newspapers have left the readers. The problem is that newspapers have stayed the same. They're essentially the same today as they were 50 years ago, in a totally different media market, with totally different readers, and totally different competitive situations.

Q. Kunkel and Roberts argue that corporate mergers are hurting consumers by reducing competition among newspapers.

A. The reduced competition is only among newspapers. The amount of competition among news media has increased tremendously–because of cable television, satellite television, broadcast television, radio, the Internet, fax newsletters, you name it.

Q. So are newspapers doomed?

A. I don't know. But are they declining in importance? Absolutely.

Q. Are corporate types "undermining the traditional nature and role of the press," as the authors claim?

A. Undermining! (Grunts.) Kunkel and Roberts put a whole conspiratorial thing behind this. Actually, newspapers have been going out of business for the last 40 years-including the paper I used to work for. I don't know if Kunkel ever worked for any newspapers, but I daresay that if he worked for one that went out of business, I'll bet a $1,000 that it was privately held and not part of a corporation. If you have run newspapers poorly from a financial standpoint, you will have no newspapers at all.

Q. Were newspapers ever noble watchdogs of society? Or was it mostly yellow journalism?

A. Absolutely. They were terrible. Are we better now than we were 70 years ago? Hell, yes.

Q. So what is the "traditional nature and role of the press" that Kunkel wants newspapers to fulfill?

A. There's not one role. A newspaper is only a medium, a way of reaching people. Newspapers feel that they're the only way of reaching people, when there's actually dozens of ways. Newspaper guys live in another era. They're the Fred Flintstone of the media business.