Before persuading FORTUNE to let me write about sustainability, I covered the media and entertainment industry for the magazine for about 10 years. I donâ€™t miss that beat, to be honest. After a while, I found it hard to care about whether Disney was going to move its TV shows to a digital platform, or who Sumner Redstone was going to fight with next.
But I do care about newspapers, and so I was pleased to be able to write a feature for the magazine about The Washington Post. The Post lands on my driveway each morning, along with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and I look forward to reading all of them. (Iâ€™m a big fan of The Post sports section, in particular.) Unfortunately, as anyone whoâ€™s paying attention knows, the news about newspapers has been grim lately. Even The Postâ€”which is easily the best general-interest newspaper in America that isnâ€™t The Timesâ€”is struggling. When it comes to the print edition (as opposed to washingtonpost.com), all the indicators are pointing in the wrong direction. Circâ€™s down. Classified and display ads are down, too. The paperâ€™s literally shrinking in size (smaller page withs), in newshole, in staff. And yet the journalism remains really good, a tribute to the editors and reporters there. Investigative reporting, in particular, has been just great this year–there was the Walter Reed scandal, a series about how Dick Cheney wields power, strong reporting on the Smithsonian Institution, etc.
The plight of newspapers, the story says,
â€¦is something not often seen in business. Newspapers remain important institutions, providing a valuable public service, but their business model is slowly, or maybe not so slowly, going away.
What will the model be for quality journalism, going forward? No one seems to know, as Don Graham, the chief executive of the Post Co., is honest enough to admit. (I pursued Graham for 18 months, believe it or not, before he agreed to be interviewed, perhaps because he knows that the news about newspapers is not good.) The hope at the Post Co. and elsewhere is that the Internet will save journalism. Iâ€™m skeptical. Internet ad revenues, while still growing, are not growing as fast as they used to and theyâ€™re certainly not growing fast enough to offset the slide in print.
As so often happens, I gathered far more material for this story than fit into six pages in the magazine. Maybe the most worrisome thing were a series of conversations Iâ€™ve had with several twenty-something people. Ari Levin has worked this spring and summer at The Brookings Institution, sheâ€™ll go to Duke this fall and she cares and knows a lot about politics. Isaac Goldstein is a political activist, whose first job out of college was raising money for progressive causes. Both are engaged in the world, and really well informed. My 22-year-old daughter Sarah works in microfinance, pays close attention to whatâ€™s going on in Africa and read Barack Obamaâ€™s autobiography. And yet Ari, Isaac and Sarah almost never read the $0.35 version of the Post or the $1.25 edition of The Times or any print newspaper at all. They get their news online, much of its from newspaper web sites, but they also spend time on aggregation sites like Huffington, blogs and the like.
Iâ€™ll post a link to my FORTUNE story about The Post here when it goes online. In the meantime, you can find it in the August 6 issue of the magazine, which also has a cover story by my friend and colleague David Whitford about the nuclear power industry. David took a 7,000-mile trip by car â€“ a nuclear power trip, if you will â€“ to take the pulse of the industry and its so-called revival. Itâ€™s a great read, a classic FORTUNE story.