Another painful blow was delivered to the depressed newspaper industry this week with the announcement that the Tribune Company, owner of the Los Angeles Times
and the Chicago Tribune
, filed for bankruptcy. The company apparently still has enough cash to continue publishing those papers and 10 others it owns, but the future looks grim, as it does all across the newspaper landscape these days.
The reasons for this are obvious — a battered economy and the shift of advertising revenue and readership to the Internet. And yet there's a paradox at work. Although the Internet continues to siphon off readership via blogs and websites that slice and dice information from various sources, no one has really figured out who is going to gather this information if newspapers continue to die. Most blogs and websites don't have the resources to support the kind of news-gathering operations fielded by papers like the Trib, the L.A. Times, and my own paper, the Washington Post. In fact, the blogs feed off us for content.
The evolution of my book Big Boy Rules is a good example of this phenomenon. It started as a reporting project in the Washington Post on the private armies of Iraq. The project consisted of a series of articles on mercenaries and lawlessness involving companies such as Blackwater, Triple Canopy, and Crescent Security Group. It involved hundreds of interviews, four trips to Iraq, further travel in the United States and Asia, and ultimately cost tens of thousands of dollars to execute. The project won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 2007.
Each of those articles, after they appeared in the Post, metastasized across the Web, picked up and distributed by thousands of blogs and websites who picked up the stories at no cost. This is part of the paradox: newspaper readership, in reality, has risen astronomically in exactly this way, and yet no one has figured out a way to capitalize financially and keep it all alive. The phenomenon that allows someone to read my work in Romania and that of countless other journalists is in effect killing the newspapers that produce that work.
My ultimate question is this: What if they had a war and nobody came?
It's not a philosophical question. One of the great secrets of the Iraq war is how few media outlets actually have the resources to cover it. If papers like the Trib and the L.A. Times ultimately go under, or are so diminished financially that they can't send reporters to Iraq or other places where America has vital interests, how will we know what happened there?