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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 09/16/2008

The Morning Line: "Doonesbury" Sings the Newspaper Blues

By Michael Cavna

Even "Doonesbury" isn't immune from the print newspaper blues.

When Garry Trudeau's "Washington Post" begins a round of buyouts this week, it can't help but hit close to home. (UPS) Enlarge Comic

In the pages of The Washington Post this week (as well as hundreds of other papers), the strip's Rick Redfern -- grizzled investigative reporter for Garry Trudeau's fictional "Washington Post" -- suddenly finds himself in conversation about staff cutbacks. This is it: The big Why-Not-Take-a-Buyout? discussion. It's not giving anything away to say that the "labor" pains of a shifting industry are addressed, and poignantly so, in the days ahead.

Trudeau's pen is so on point, in fact, that the thin line between fact and fiction is easily blurred. Is this just a case of reportorial cartooning -- Trudeau's questioning friends and colleagues about life in the newsroom -- or is the artist himself fully engaged in this struggle?

"The free-fall of newspapers is something I've been thinking a lot about lately," Trudeau tells us. "I'm feeling the hot breath of change on my neck too," he says, referring to space reductions in print comics and op-ed pages. (One of his oldest clients, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, just dropped "Doonesbury," for instance.)

Trudeau's keen knowledge of newsroom practices comes through sharply in the strip's upcoming panels. We could only laugh through the wincing as we read the "Doonesbury" proofs late last Friday -- immediately after we attended a retirement sendoff for outgoing Executive Editor Len Downie, in a time when buyout talk buzzes daily. Trudeau's storyline is so timely, I half-expected caricatures of real Post folk to appear in the strip.

So beyond Trudeau's fictional Post, what does the real future hold for editors, for reporters and designers, for even syndicated cartoonists?

"I can't get beyond the hand-wringing stage -- I see nothing that will save our beloved industry," Trudeau says. "My kids won't mind, but I don't think they understand what's at stake..."

By Michael Cavna  | September 16, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Morning Line, The Riffs  
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The WaPo was in the forefront of the move to on-line. They had these little splats with links to "more about the story" and special (fairly horrid) software so you could get on-line content. They saw the future but somehow missed the financial impact. I get the dead tree version, but I often run on momentum. I can see a day when I'll read it all on-line and buy a copy if I have some time to kill between housecalls. Except by then it'll be too late and that choice will be gone.

I'm not sure this is inevitable though. They predicted the death of newspapers when television came along. I am sure that smarter people than me are working on this.

Posted by: f2 | September 16, 2008 8:05 AM | Report abuse

On a totally different topic, if y'all don't read 9 Chickweed Lane, start. I'm sure there's a webpage that describes the unintentionally and intentionally insane characters there. Go back a couple of weeks and see the latest storyline. The character interaction is great and the artwork is fantastic.

Posted by: f2 | September 16, 2008 8:09 AM | Report abuse

Trudeau can do sarcastic without coming off as smug ... which is a delicate balancing act.

Posted by: Horacio | September 16, 2008 11:56 AM | Report abuse

f2, of course it's inevitable. Check the demographic curves on print newspaper readership. Each new age cohort that has reached adulthood since the 1960s reads newspapers less than their predecessor cohort, and each cohort over time continues to decline in its newspaper readership. The average newspaper reader is now between 55 and 60 years old; before long, the average reader will be of retirement age and only the age cohorts over 65 will have a majority (barely) of newspaper readers.

This is not a formula for a sustainable business, but is characteristic of one in a death spiral. Advertisers are already concluding that newspapers are no longer reliable as a "mass market" vehicle to promote products of broad interest. Retailers are realizing they need to use other means to reach anyone under 45 or 50.

The loss of interest in newspapers has nothing to do with the advent of telegraphs, telephones, radio, fax, television or the internet (each of which at one time was predicted to be the cause of the decline of newspapers). The internet in particular may be accelerating the slide of print, but the decline is really due to the fact that contrary to the monolithic set of interests and concerns Americans shared in the 1930s through the 1960s, we have since that time diversified our interests and concerns into a multitude of niches, which a single mass medium cannot serve. Hence the rise of the many specialized cable channels as well as the success of the internet, and hence the end of newspapers before long.

The only chance newspaper organizations have for survival is this: they must decide that they are web-first publishers of news and features (most of them still cling to the notion that they believe in print, write for print, sell ads for print, and publish online as a sideline). They must become web-centric, and to let the print product evolve as it may -- most likely as a weekly product built around a package of features and supported by those advertisers that still like or need print (including most of the preprint advertisers).

Mr. Trudeau might consider how to migrate his strip in the direction of an extended weekly feature rather than a daily strip.

Posted by: mainesail | September 16, 2008 12:00 PM | Report abuse


NEWSWIRE--A Pew study finds that after layoffs, newspapers are getting smaller.

There's less in the paper;
It's starting to taper
(You can see by the second or third page).

Online won't replace it
(I've tried to embrace it),
Until websites can work in a birdcage.
Light verse, ripped from the headlines

Posted by: newsandverse | September 16, 2008 12:20 PM | Report abuse

The thing that the Post has missed is that I think some people would pay on a day-to-day or annual basis to have an AD FREE online version of the Post.

I moved out to Western Wisconsin, where our local paper is very little more than a re-hash of AP articles for national news, poorly written local news, and the local bi-monthly free culture magazine has a better view on the arts scene. So I still read the Post and NY Times online to keep up with the big things that matter.

Except I hate stuff like the content-based hyperlink ads (posing as additional content). I hate that the home page design put in a huge banner advertisement in the third column of the home page. I even resent the Google Ad boxes. So I would gladly pay the "dead tree" price of about $72 annually to get rid of or minimize all that garbage.

The NY Times botched their for-pay part. You either pay for the newspaper online or you don't - you can't cherry pick content - editorials are not like the Crosswords.

You either have to depend upon your increased ad revenue, or simply have a paid subscription to your content that dials back on the ads a bit.

Oh, and here's a concept: report actual news. Do not fall for every piece of BS that is fed to you - does no one actually report facts that they dug up on their own anymore? Do they all work from the same set of talking points?

Provide actual news coverage, and people may actually pay for it. And good reporters and cartoonists can remain employed.

Posted by: Chasmosaur | September 16, 2008 3:22 PM | Report abuse


I think you hit the mark in pointing out the negative effect of niches on mass media, but the Internet certainly is the one single force that has allowed these niches to explode in recent years; in this way, newspapers' decline has very much to do with the advent of the Internet as opposed to radio or television. People now can satisfy virtually any interests online, and often for free, just as they can skip traditional music stores and get more variety from iTunes. The newspaper then has less appeal because of its inability to target content as narrowly as a specialty Web site can for free.

It's "Long Tail" economics at work (sorry for using a buzzword), to newspapers' and other mass medias' detriment. I think there is much to your solution as well. In any case, it's good to see Trudeau highlighting the industry's problems.

Posted by: newsie | September 16, 2008 4:36 PM | Report abuse

The overall reason for newspaper decline is that American's would rather be entertained than informed. It relates to the U.S. obesity rate as well.
Frequently the L.A. Times Sports section has the same number of pages as section one.
People now consume news in bits and bytes, served to you by Yahoo and Google. The pansy electronic media is also to blame.
Blogs are a niche market on the whole and most bloggers have no background in journalism. It's mainly opinion.
Most people still get their main source of news from the TV networks. Note: All the words in a 30 minute newscast would not fill one page of newspaper print.
American's are feebly informed these days. The evidence is overwhelming.
And it will be the undoing of this once great society.

Posted by: BrainDragon | September 16, 2008 5:10 PM | Report abuse

It isn't the World Wide Web as a whole that's killing off print newspapers, it's E-bay and Craigslist. Choke off the profits from 2-line want ads, as happened long ago, and watch the content shrink and become cheaper (in every sense).

As I mentioned before, I prefer the online version, because the print comics have shrunk so much that I can no longer read the dialog. (OK, in the case of more than a few strips that's a blessing, but still...)

Posted by: Seismic-2 | September 16, 2008 7:49 PM | Report abuse

Nobody so far has addressed what Trudeau means by "what's at stake," and that is the healthy functioning of democracy.

Newspapers, especially those in medium-smaller markets, remain the best local news source. What the hell becomes of governance when newspapers die or shrink to the point of lacking the resources to fulfill their watchdog role?

Online "citizen journalists" to the rescue? I don't think so, unless they had their own vested interest in a board's activity -- which then would compromise the objectivity of the reporting.

A majority of the public shares some blame, for its general ignorance and apathy. Some of it is due to larger forces, like the loss of community in spread-out suburbia that lack a small-town downtown core. That sense of community that binded people in the past helped make them feel like they had to pick up a paper to be a good citizen of that community.

We are a more nationalized, homogenized society, and most don't pay much attention to news and government beyond the national scope. Thus today people feel adequately informed by the Internet -- and take for granted that they often get that news from the very newspapers that are struggling to survive.

Posted by: John, Sterling, Va. | September 17, 2008 10:06 AM | Report abuse

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