Searching the online catalogue at the National Library in Singapore last weekend, I used the keyword "journalism" and was struck by the number of titles that popped up dating back to the 1970s. That was the post-Watergate era, the glory days of journalism when The Washington Post could rightly claim it had the power to bring down a president. It is a power that deep pockets are no longer eager to buy, not at least in America.
How times have changed became clear this week when Knight Ridder, the second biggest US newspaper group, was sold to the only company that made an offer — another newspaper publisher, The McClatchy Company.
It was "like a dolphin swallowing a small whale", said a commentator comparing the sizes of the two companies. But no sooner had the $4.5 billion deal been signed than the new owner wanted to downsize. McClatchy, which publishes the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Sacramento Bee, wants to sell off a dozen newspapers including the Philadelphia Inquirer and — blogger-journalist Dan Gillmor’s former paper — the San Jose Mercury News.
The newspaper business is clearly in bad shape in America — and pundits are not short of explanations. One British columnist faulted the "style" of American news writing and op-ed articles. Tunku Varadrajan, an Indian-born British citizen who taught at Oxford and worked for The Times before moving to the Wall Street Journal, agreed American newspapers striving for balance and political correctness can be bland and boring.
I don’t think British newspapers are awfully better. But they are in better shape possibly because Britain is smaller, poorer and technologically less advanced than America.
London is the heart of England, it has national newspapers, public transport is much more widely used, and blogs have not yet become an alternative news source as in America. British blogs tend to be personal, not political like the American "warbloggers".
And public transport, railways especially, are absolutely vital to newspapers. New York, Washington, Chicago all have more than one newspaper and a subway system. When the freesheet Today was launched in Singapore, it was distributed from subway stations. London too has freesheets distributed on the Underground. Commuters tend to read newspapers though I personally prefer to bury my nose in a bestseller on a bus or a train.
I prefer to get my information online because no newspaper or magazine or radio or television station can provide as much information. Perhaps, that is what is hurting newspapers in America, where one can even participate in political debates online through blogs, which are more interactive than newspapers.
Blogs may not match newspapers in quality, they may draw much of their content from newspapers and magazines, but they are interactive: it is easier to comment on a blog than write a letter to the editor. And newspapers, realising the need to engage readers, are going online.
It is significant that traditional media like Time Warner and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp have diversified into the Net; online giants like Google and Yahoo have not tried to build newspaper empires.
PS: The title is taken from an old Rolling Stones song.