If you doubt that American newspapers are an endangered species, take note of this:

Last week, the Hearst Corp. announced that, unless big concessions are made by employees (both union and non), the San Francisco Chronicle would be put up for sale.  The Chronicle, which was founded in January 1865, is the dominant daily newspaper in the Bay Area, and on the West Coast is second only in size to the Los Angeles Times. 

Since newspapers are hardly a hot commodity nowadays, that means the paper would be shut down soon. Once the Chron‘s gone, San Francisco will be the largest city in America — maybe in the world — not to have its own daily subscription newspaper.

Hearst also is about to cut loose the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The P-Iis the smaller newspaper in Seattle, and it has long struggled financially despite a JOA (joint operating agreement) with the dominant Seattle Times. But the Times is in trouble too, and it may not last much longer than the P-I.  Other Hearst newspapers such as the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-Newsare hanging on grimly. Like A.H. Belo’s Dallas Morning News, they are the only dailies left in Texas’ largest cities, which all once boasted two newspapers each. But the Houston Post, San Antonio Light and Dallas Times Herald have all been gone for years now.

Last Friday, the Rocky Mountain News published its final edition after nearly 150 years of serving the Denver area. The city’s remaining paper, the Denver Post, is owned by Dean Singleton’s Denver-based MediaNews Group — which also owns the El Paso Times, the Los Angeles Daily News, the Oakland Tribune and some 50 other papers, mostly in California, New England and New Mexico.

The Denver Post, like virtually all American metro papers, has struggled financially in recent years. How much longer will the Post survive? Well, since it’s MediaNews’ hometown paper, maybe it will last longer than some of Singleton’s previous enterprises. Here in North Texas, then-young “Dinky” Singleton (a former DMNer) tried to revive the old Fort Worth Press back in the 1970s. When the fledgling paper went down for the count, his employees never even got their final paychecks. (I know this because my husband was one of them.)

In 1986, Singleton came into town with much fanfare and bought the Dallas Times Herald after LA-based Times-Mirror decided to sell it.  He kept DTH for less than two years before selling it to an associate who let it die on the vine. The company’s assets were sold to the DMN for $55 million in December 1991, and the Herald was immediately closed down.

This pattern is not particularly new. Afternoon papers, former afternoon papers and less-dominant dailies have been a disappearing from this country since the 1960s. Two-newspaper American towns are rarer than whooping cranes. The only American city with more than two daily newspapers now is New York, which has the New York Times, the New York Daily News, the New York Post and Long Island Newsday. 

However, now even the city with only a single dominant daily cannot count on having its newspaper around forever. San Francisco may be the first major city without its own major daily paper; Seattle could be the second. Who will be third? Fourth? Newspapers — even those that still make money, such as the Austin American-Statesman — are on the block all over the country. Without buyers, they face certain diminution and probable extinction. Perhaps some, such as the P-I and  San Francisco Chronicle, will continue to exist in a shrunken, online-only format. Many will not even survive to that extent.

Many bloggers and online commenters assume that “everyone” gets his news online nowadays. Recent surveys, however, say about 20 percent of American households do not have computer access, and roughly the same percentage of heads of households say they have never sent an e-mail. 

People who live on very limited incomes, people who live in remote or rural areas, people who aren’t comfortable with new technology or who consider themselves too old to learn about it — those people aren’t going to consider a laptop as a viable alternative for news access. They might just watch more TV news. But TV won’t be carrying local obituaries, church news, wedding announcements, crossword puzzles or a lot of other things that ordinary people buy a newspaper for.

Most of the real “news” on the Web, in fact, still comes from newspapers and wire services (which have mostly existed to serve newspapers). A city without a daily newspaper is a city that can  expect to see more corruption in its government, because the watchdog of a local free press will have been muzzled if not euthanized. Good investigative reporting is something you won’t see much of, once the daily paper is gone. Television stations, with their shrinking ad revenue, slashed budgets and news staffs, are under the same constraints as other news outlets; they’re having to do less with fewer resources, too. 

Personally, I don’t want to live in a newspaper-less city.  Maybe it’s just because I’m nearly 55, but I cannot imagine getting up in the morning, having coffee with my husband and not having the morning paper there to share.

I know that a lot of people wonder what the big deal is, why print journalists and others are so sentimental about dead-tree news. That’s because they’ve never really had the newspaper habit. The feel of newsprint in one’s hands —  like reading books instead of computer screens — will never quite be replaced by a Kindle. 

All I can say is: I feel sad for you folks who don’t know what I’m talking about. You don’t even know what you’ll have missed. At least, not until the next piece of Obama-like history is made, and you realize you can’t even buy a newspaper to save for your grandchildren.

UPDATE:  The New York Times looks into the future with this story: “As Cities Go From Two Newspapers to One, Talk of Zero.”

And KPLU 88.5, the NPR station in Seattle, ponders what it will be like for Seattleites to live in “A No-Newspaper Town?” 

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