Zero-Newspaper Cities.

The New York Times has an article today about the closures of big newspapers all around the country, like the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

“In 2009 and 2010, all the two-newspaper markets will become one-newspaper markets, and you will start to see one-newspaper markets become no-newspaper markets,” said Mike Simonton, a senior director at Fitch Ratings, who analyzes the industry.

No one knows which will be the first big city without a large paper, but there are candidates all across the country. The Hearst Corporation, which owns The Post-Intelligencer, has also threatened to close The San Francisco Chronicle, which lost more than $1 million a week last year, unless it can wring significant savings from the operation.

Obviously, I think it’s no good thing that the newspaper industry is finding itself in such trouble, and I was particularly distressed to read that bit about the San Francisco Chronicle, which I rely on for a lot of my Bay Area news.

But it is a little strange, and a bit of a holdover from the last century, that we still have multiple large newspapers in many big cities across the United States, especially since they mostly cover the same thing.  The Chronicle spends a lot of money printing articles about Bay Area and California news, sure, but they also spend a lot more money printing articles about things like national politics and foreign affairs in a way that is not appreciably different from any other large newspaper.  This has the effect of reducing the brand distinction between these different newspapers: if you care about politics, does it matter whether you buy the Chronicle or the Examiner?  They’re both reprinting the same AP articles anyway.

In 1950, of course, your local newspapers were your only options, which is why we had cities with a glutton of newspapers.  (New York has, in the last century-and-a-half or so, been home to: The New York Dispatch, the New York Daily Mirror, The New York Globe, the New York Herald Tribune, and many more.)  But it doesn’t work like that anymore.  Why would I go to the Chronicle’s website for my political news rather than the Washington Post?  Or (worse for everyone) my Google News page, which pulls pages indiscriminantly from newspapers across the country?

So I think that what we’re going to see, especially in big cities, is that these formerly-gargantuan newspapers are going to focus much more on printing local and area news, which people still want but can’t get from larger news sources.  At the same time, I think we’re going to see a few major newspapers – if I had to guess, I would say the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the LA Times – establish themselves as leading voices in the national print news world.  And I think we’re going to see a lot more niche web publications (like The Politico) springing up in the next five years or so.