Bob Hamm disappeared into the Big Dark Secret last week, just two months after his longtime colleague at The Daily Advertiser, Vince Marino, also died. Hamm was 74 years old. He and Marino were lions in a medium that still has pride. The pun is intentional, but also referential: As the ghosts of writers and editors like Hamm and Marino flutter away, print journalism edges deeper into institutional indigestion. Like most of us after the age of 35 or so, print journalism is asking itself, ‘How long can I last?’ But print will not decide its own fate; consumers will.
The acid reflux started in the mid-90s as the Internet began to really flex its lithe digital muscles. Remember 1991? The Berlin Wall and communism were getting the sledge hammer treatment, cellular phones had the approximate heft of a man’s size-8 loafer, and the Internet and World Wide Web were more or less military and research applications still getting cozy with one another, and of which perhaps fewer than 20,000 humans among five billion were aware. Newspapers were flush with revenue. Theirs wasn’t a niche; it was a domain. Then came domain names.
Today’s journalism students will enter a profession squeezed, yanked and twisted by economics, and pressured by the sheer flat-earth stubbornness of disseminating information on paper. Paper! Our ink should just be oil and let’s be done with it. There’s very little that is sensible or practical or prudent about print journalism anymore, especially daily newspapers. Consumers can get the same information for free on the ’net. That’s our folly in print.
The revenue conundrum goes back to what news industry blogger Alan Mutter refers to as “the Original Sin,” that is, the decision made in newsrooms early in the online era to offer electronic content for free. The argument was: If we don’t offer it for free, surely someone else will. But the death knell for daily print began its rueful clang, as the current issue of American Journalism Review suggests, when the very strength of daily newspapers — the Associated Press — cut a deal with the devil. The AP is a non-profit news cooperative: papers pay a fee for membership, and all AP members share each other’s content along with reporting by about 3,000 journalists in 243 bureaus around the world. It was a nice arrangement for 150 years. But about 15 years ago, the AP agreed to sell its content to America Online. By 2000, AP content was ubiquitous — AOL, CompuServe, Yahoo!, Prodigy, everywhere. What’s my incentive as a consumer to subscribe to print, much less go to that newspaper’s Web site when Google can give me the same content the instant I log on?
Just more than a week ago, PolitiFact.com, an entirely online entity created by The St. Petersburg Times, won a Pulitzer Prize. The site weighs the veracity of statements by politicians and pundits, grading them on a Truth-O-Meter. Web-first reporting is by every indication the future of journalism. But making it profitable remains sketchy.
Bob Hamm did print, television, radio and, as an extension of his job as a newspaper man, the Internet. He probably knew Morse code and no doubt could communicate through smoke signal in the event of a power outage. But if Hamm were alive and the power went out, his first message should be “S.O.S.”