This newspaper put the choke-hold on itself

These days, when people lament the decline of the daily newspaper, the consensus is that it was the internet’s fault.

The picture we get is that heroic journalists fought in their trenches for decades but were doomed from the start. The public could get the traditional truths offered by newspapers for 50 cents a day, but it chose instead the free crap provided in Google searches.

That’s why we are where we are now, we are told, with a nation unable to differentiate between facts and propaganda. I see it differently. I was an eyewitness to the collapse, and it resulted from rot within. I’ll give you an example.

One day in 1999, our newsroom leader had a big announcement at our monthly editors meeting. Professional wrestling had become a huge hit on TV, and we had a chance to cash in on it. Once a week, he said, we will have a wrestling page in our entertainment section. 

The page would be sent to us camera-ready, which meant we would have to do no writing or editing. A national advertiser was backing it. The contracts were signed. This was going to be easy money.

About a dozen of our best journalists sat silent in the conference room. 

“One question,” someone finally said. “When they give us a story on Mr. Ass, will we have to run their headline in 48-point type?”

More silence. “Seriously, he’s one of the biggest stars,” this editor said. “There will be stories on Mr. Ass nearly every week.”

“And how about Sexual Chocolate? When my 10-year-old daughter looks in our paper for the Garfield cartoon, will she have to see a picture of Sexual Chocolate first?”

One thing was clear by then. Only one person in the room actually had watched the World Wrestling Federation on TV.

A lot of offensive things had crept into the culture during the 1990s, and the WWF was among the worst. The characters were based on racial and sexual stereotypes. Women were ballooned into freakish body styles. Champions always cheated. They were crude and raged out of control. This all was watched by teen-age boys who would have benefited from better role models.

The lone editor’s argument was that this was taking our newspaper into an area that we needed to avoid. 

In those days, we protected decency in language. We avoided the word “ass” – in regular 9-point typeface and especially in 48-point headlines. We did not make heroes out of bullies. We did not risk our hard-won credibility by acting like scripted events were real.

His conclusion was, “We cannot do this.”

We can and we will, the newsroom leader replied. The concept is good and the contract is signed. We need to make sure that others in the newsroom understand and support it.

In the next week or so, all that changed. My guess is that the higher-ups switched channels late one Saturday night and actually watched the WWF show. Quietly, the contract went away and the Tribune never ran a wrestling page.

You might wonder if the folks who were willing to abandon our principles so easily would face consequences. They did not, but that lone dissenting editor did. At his next review, he was kicked off the editorial team and exiled to a far corner of the newsroom, with an annual pay cut of about $10,000.

This happened because news executives of that generation misunderstood who we were. For generations, newspapers did not rely on gimmicks. We had earned loyal readership because of simple concepts: We delivered comprehensive news reports inexpensively on time every day to people who could trust every word we printed.

In the years that followed, those inviolate principles of journalism were stripped away at the Tribune and other newspapers. Today’s newspapers do not have comprehensive news reports, and they are not delivered inexpensively on time every day. As a result, our former readers started heeding the divisive voices elsewhere that sow mistrust.

There were solutions to the internet threat 25 years ago, lots of them. One was, let our print subscribers read the Tribune online for free if they wish, but set up a micro-payment system for non-subscribers. If Paul from Philly wants the scoop on Notre Dame football recruiting or if Aunt Edna in Idaho wants to read her sister’s obituary, charge them a penny. At no additional cost, the 10,000 online hits we might get on a typical football story would have been worth $100.

The people who were willing to put Mr. Ass in the paper didn’t like that idea. Instead, their form of surrender was to cut expenses, weaken the product and moan about the unfairness of it all. 

The result of that strategy? Circulation has fallen from 120,000 in the 1990s to about 20,000. Many of the remaining subscribers are in a nether world, longing for the good, old days when a typical Tuesday paper had all the news you needed. Why bother subscribing now? It’s like they’re still buying buggy whips and don’t own horses.

I subscribe as an act of faith. A day will come when something appears that is as vital as newspapers were. Our nation and world are in disarray, in part, because there is no source of information that leads people to agree on common truths. Newspapers did that every day. Something else will someday. It will save us.

But please hurry. Everywhere I look, I’m reminded of Mr. Ass.