Article — From the November 2009 issue

Final Edition

Twilight of the American newspaper

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Newspapers have become deadweight commodities linked to other media commodities in chains that are coupled or uncoupled by accountants and lawyers and executive vice presidents and boards of directors in offices thousands of miles from where the man bit the dog and drew ink. The San Francisco Chronicle is owned by the Hearst Corporation, once the Chronicle’s archrival. The Hearst Corporation has its headquarters in New York City. According to Hearst, the Chronicle has been losing a million dollars a week. In San Francisco there have been buyouts and firings of truck drivers, printers, reporters, artists, editors, critics. With a certain élan, the San Francisco Chronicle has taken to publishing letters from readers who remark the diminishing pleasure or usefulness of the San Francisco Chronicle.

When a newspaper dies in America, it is not simply that a commercial enterprise has failed; a sense of place has failed. If the San Francisco Chronicle is near death—and why else would the editors celebrate its 144th anniversary? and why else would the editors devote a week to feature articles on fog?—it is because San Francisco’s sense of itself as a city is perishing.

Most newspapers that are dying today were born in the nineteenth century. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer died 2009, born 1863. The Rocky Mountain News died 2009, born 1859. The Ann Arbor News died 2009, born 1835. It was the pride and the function of the American newspaper in the nineteenth century to declare the forming congregation of buildings and services a city—a place busy enough or populated enough to have news. Frontier American journalism preserved a vestige of the low-church impulse toward universal literacy whereby the new country imagined it could read and write itself into existence. We were the Gutenberg Nation.

Nineteenth-century newspapers draped bunting about their mastheads and brandished an inflated diction and a Gothic type to name themselves the Herald, the Eagle, the Tribune, the Mercury, the Globe, the Sun. With the passage of time, the name of the city was commonly attached to the name of the newspaper, not only to distinguish the Alexandria Gazette from the New York Gazette but because the paper described the city and the city described the paper.

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is an editor at New America Media in San Francisco. His most recent essay for Harper’s Magazine, “The God of the Desert,” appeared in the January 2008 issue.

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