The Death of the American Newspaper
Ink drizzles through my punctured veins. Indeed, the toxins that ooze from chemical inks and pulp during a lifetime of reading and writing for newspapers may well have contributed to the tumor that now weighs upon my liver.
Genetics predisposed me to such contamination. My dad was a founding member of the Newspaper Guild when he toiled with Hayward Broun at the old New York World-Telegram (later the World Telegram & Sun.) On December 7th 1941, a day that will live in infamy for more than one reason, George Ross, the WT’s drama critic, restaurant reviewer, Broadway columnist, and general lout-about-town, pushed my stroller into the Telly’s frantic newsroom in lower Manhattan and there, wedged between knobby-kneed reporters, I was introduced to the frenzy of a big city paper at a maximum moment of world crisis. I was hooked for life.
Newspapers provoke liver cancer. It’s not just the ink and the pulp. Reporters are forever hunched over the bar at the dark dives that abut the rags where they slave, morosely drowning their resentment at editors who just eviscerated their big scoops, in an excess of cirrhosis-generating booze.
Here in San Francisco, working saloons like Hano’s and the M&M where the newshounds once gathered, have been yuppified into oblivion in this suddenly one scab newspaper town. I mourn them as deeply as I mourn my liver.
Although I was on staff at the Examiner (now free and "worth every penny of it"), I never spent much time pounding out my stories on the premises. I had an editor named Jack McCarthy, bless his soul, who insisted that the paper paid me to run away from the pack. The "Monarch of the Dailies" had just been handed over to Willie Hearst, Patty’s cousin, and I found myself a frequent contributor (ten front pages during the stolen 1988 Mexican election) along with Hunter S. Thompson and Zippy the Pinhead as the scion of Citizen Kane commited to going head to head with the Chron. This didn’t last long.
My M.O. at the Zam, much as it had been at the SF Bay Guardian and Pacific News Service was to "ir al lugar de los hechos" – to go to the place where it happens – rather than hanging around the phones doing dumb desk stories. I was always on the road. But whether they ran in the dailies (I was big in the Chron-Zam Sunday bulldog edition), Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the Northcoast Environmental Center Econews or the National Horseshoe Pitching Journal, my reportage always appeared in print. Your thumb got inked with the words I wrote.
Now I’m reduced to bloodless ciphers streaming across Internet pages – Counterpunch serves its function but it hardly satisfies my craving for real live chemical inks and pulp.
By a synchronistic twist of fate, newspapering in the U.S. is dying as fast as my liver. Pretty soon they both will be heirlooms, yellowing ancient slabs like the binders of Mexican newspapers at my corner library in the Centro Historico of Mexico City, "El Gran Monstruo", to which my neighbors return time and time again to revisit the heartbreaks of the past.
An astonishing number of North American dailies are gasping their last. A recent survey by the New York Times, itself on its last legs, lists 75 daily newspapers of being at risk from sea to stinking sea. Some like the Rocky Mountain News and the Arizona Citizen, right-wing rags that couldn’t survive in ex-two newspaper towns, have already folded. Hearst’s Post-Intelligencer, the more liberal Seattle paper, will soon be accessible only on-line – ditto the daily edition of the Christian Science Monitor. Behaving like his ruthless great granddaddy, Will Hearst threatens to close down the Chron if he can’t break the unions and turn the Comical into a scab rag. The L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune are in bankruptcy.
It is anticipated that McClatchy which snapped up Knight-Ridder when stock was at $60 a share (it closed at 41 cents last week) will shutter the flagship Sacramento and Fresno Bees and the gusano bible Miami Herald if new owners can’t be found. Gannet (USA TODAY), the nation’s biggest chain, is sinking fast – its Pasadena paper is now outsourcing local coverage to India.
Even Rupert Murdoch is losing his shirt at the Wall Street Journal (which he snapped up for a mere $5,000,000,000) and the basket case New York Post where not even racist cartoons can staunch a million buck a week bloodbath. Wash Post revenues nosedived 77% in the last quarter of ’08 and the paper is now "restructuring."
The New York Times has persuaded a Mexican billionaire to bail it out of impending shipwreck.
Well, not just any Mexican billionaire. Carlos Slim is usually ranked Numero Dos on the Forbes Hit Parade with $60,000,000,000 under his mattress. Heavily invested in stocks, market plunges may have cost him a third of that boodle – Slim’s corporations comprise about a third of those that trade on the Mexican Stock Exchange.
The big guns of Slim’s empire are Telmex, the Mexican phone monopoly that charges higher rates than any other such enterprise in the wide world, with which he was gifted in an excess of crony capitalism by the reviled ex-president Carlos Salinas, and American Mobil – the Mexican tycoon’s cell phone companies dominate 70% of the Latin American market. Also in the Slim portfolio: Inbursa banks; Carso Construction; Prodigy Internet (Mexico’s top provider); the Sanborn’s restaurant and department store chain; double digit chunks of Sears and Saks Fifth Avenue; the Mixup record store chain; El Globo, the nation’s top pan dulce outlet; "La Cigarera", his tobacco cartel in Nayarit state; and most of the neighborhood where I live, the Historic Center of Mexico City.
Partnering with leftist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, then the Monstruo’s mayor, Slim financed the renovation of 34 blocks in this colonial jewel box, a U.N. World Cultural Heritage site. The tycoon’s attachment to the old neighborhood is significant – his father was a penniless Lebanese merchant who began with a pushcart on Jesus y Maria Street. Now Carlos Slim owns up to 160 buildings in the old quarter and dominates rental property.
The Forbes Mag’s second richest man on earth is a political chameleon who has been a business associate of both Carlos Salinas and the ex-president’s archenemy Lopez Obrador. The billionaire recently had the current president, the highly unpopular Felipe Calderon, fulminating when he decried the calamites that Calderon’s management of the economy has caused Mexicans. Political pundits cast the tycoon as a master pragmatist whose campaign slogan is "what’s good for Carlos Slim is good for Mexico (and visa versa.")
Slim built his empire on corporate cannibalism and sees weaknesses in enterprises where we mortals do not. There is little else to explain his $250,000,000 investment in the Times, a seriously sagging institution that had only $46,000,000 cash on hand and $1,100,000,000 in debt when the Mexican tycoon came to the rescue. Since his initial investment, Slim has expanded his holdings to 7.4% with the possibility of increasing his shares to 17% ownership – only the Sulzberger family owns more.
Carlos Slim’s Midas touch will be seriously tested by the Times. The Sulzbergers dug themselves into a $600,000,000 ditch when they moved into their new corporate headquarters and are desperately trying to sell off the house – the new building has just been sold on a leaseback.
In explaining his Byzantine business strategy, Carlos Slim attributes his attempt to save the New York Times from shipwreck to nostalgia ("I’m a member of the newspaper generation") and altruism ("The New York Times is worth saving.") Indeed Slim has invested in newsprint before, iconoclastically coming to the rescue of left-wing papers in Mexico City (he is a founding investor in La Jornada) and London (The Independent.)
The Slim-New York Times connection suggests a solution for the ailing U.S. newspaper industry. Among possible Mexican investors: Joaquin "El Chapo" (Shorty) Guzman, the capo of the Sinaloa cartel recently listed by Forbes in its up-and- coming billionaire rankings. Drug cartels in Sinaloa are said to already own several dailies in that Pacific coast state.
I grew up in New York City where the Times, the Herald Tribune, the Daily Mirror, and the News went head to head every morning and the afternoon slack was taken up by the Post, the Journal American, and the aforementioned World Telegram (& Sun.) A series of left papers – PM, the Compass, and the Star plus the Daily Worker – fed my addiction.
Mexico City is saturated with enough newsprint to slake my newspaper Jones. The Monstruo sustains 10 general news dailies, three daily sports papers, two afternoon broadsheets, three giveaway papers, the English-language The News and the Mexico City editions of Spain’s El Pais and ABC. The newspapers dangle from kiosks posted two to a block in the downtown area where freeloaders pause to glimpse at headlines and oogle the gore. Most papers survive on government handouts – paid publicity – which is a two-way blade since advertising revenues tend to slant editorial views. As in much of the world, the Monster’s various dailies toe party lines, often representing factions within the major political parties. La Jornada, for example, tends towards the Lopez Obrador constituency in the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution. Old-line warhorses like Universal and Excelsior are identified with the once-ruling PRI, and Reforma, which represents the ruling PAN, tilts so far right that it sometimes seems in danger of slipping off the planet. Although all of these Blats now deliver the news on line, most Mexican readers (circulations are small – La Jornada does not sell 100,000) still stain their thumbs with chemical ink.
While Mexico somehow sustains a vibrant newspaper business, prospects for the U.S. industry are at graveside. Industry bigwigs blame their downfall on plummeting advertising – news is after all "only what fills the space between advertisements" (Lord Thompson, the British press baron) but the real story is that the same corporate greed that has driven this country into deep depression has killed the newspaper business. The gluttonous pez gordo ("fat fish") gobbling up of the small fry during the boom times feeding frenzy has grievously backfired here in the Year of the Big Bust. Papers are closing up shop or slashing their staffs back to the bone – although the seven-figure-a-year editors up in the executive suites continue to populate the mastheads. In an economy that is driving the working class into homelessness, the barons of the corporate press would do well to recall the name for their product back in the other Great Depression: Hoover blankets.
The Mexicans, at least for the short term, have rescued the New York Times. The paper of record that we old lefties love to hate may outlive us yet. Indeed, we old guys need the Lies Of Our Times (remember LOOT!) to get our blood boiling on these cold mornings – without them, we are in danger of atrophying. It’s a health issue.
This will be the last Blindman’s Buff for a while as I tussle with the Cancer Monster but rest assured, this is not the Final Edition. I’m not dead yet.
JOHN ROSS continues to do battle with the medical industry on the homefront. Ross’s "El Monstruo – True Tales of Dread & Redemption In Mexico City" will be published by Nation Books in late 2009. If you have further information, write firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.johnross-rebeljournalist.com