R.I.P. Sports Illustrated, one of this lifelong reader/sports fan’s favorite media properties. I say “media property” rather than “magazine” because it long ago became a trading chip in the progressive monetization of everything. Yesterday, its new owners basically stripped SI down to the studs, and will soon begin tearing out the fixtures and wiring to sell for scrap. As the great Ray Ratto, himself a past victim of media downsizing, put it:
Sports Illustrated being turned into a title with nothing to support it has been seen as inevitable since Time, Inc. got out of the business, and this is simply the lousy next step. There will be others, and then it will disappear the way Inside Sports did, and before that Sport Magazine, and before that the International Herald Tribune. There will always be soulless brutes who buy, gut and sell things, and die as they lived, without value or memories. May their demises be slow, painful and filled with screams only they can hear.
What will be left behind, the “soulless brutes” hope, is a “brand” that can be squeezed for every last drop of profit before finally being shuttered for good. The media entity’s staff, traditionally a home for the best sports writers in America, will be filled out by contract workers. And we all know how well the “gig economy” treats writers and journalists.
Which brings me to the dying business of daily newspapers. Us olds, who still value curated journalism that tries to reflect the life of its community and provide a window on the world, stubbornly maintain our subscriptions to formerly worthy entities like the Burlington Free Press and Barre Montpelier Times Argus out of the forlorn hope that, thanks to our fingers in the dike, we can help our dailies maintain a shred of their former relevance.
Well, sorry, but that ship has sailed. Daily newspapers are never going to be anything more than a gaunt outline of their former selves. They are never going to fulfill their traditional role in civic discourse. They need to die so that something new might grow.
This would be a bad thing for all the hard-working, talented people who spend their days performing CPR on their own employers. I do not wish unemployment on the Emilie Stiglianis, April McCullums, Steve Pappases and David Delcores of the world. But their fates are not in my hands. Their paychecks arrive at the sufferance of far-away corporate owners who don’t have the slightest interest in the well-being of their minions, let alone the Constitutional duty of journalism. They see media properties as things to strip-mine with no concern for tomorrow.
And they are occupying valuable space in our media landscape for no purpose other than short-term profit.
This came into focus for me in a recent conversation at the offices of The Commons, a weekly newspaper and website — ahem, “media property” — based in Brattleboro. The Commons is staffed by a scrappy band of refugees from traditional media outlets, trying their damndest to make a living and serve their community. It’s a constant battle.
I knew that. What I didn’t know is that The Commons was founded at a time when the actual death of the daily Brattleboro Reformer seemed imminent. Without a daily paper, the reasoning went, there would be space for a weekly/website in the marketplace of dollars and cents as well as ideas.
What happened instead was that the Reformer was “rescued” from oblivion by a trio of well-intentioned Massachusetts residents who envisioned a way to save a bunch of regional dailies by consolidating business operations, freeing up additional resources for news coverage.
What’s happened instead is that they’ve kept the Reformer alive on a respirator. They can’t cost-save their way to journalistic viability, but they’ve been able to keep the doors open and the lights on.
And in the process, they’ve sucked up a lot of ad revenue that could have helped The Commons grow and thrive. If the Reformer had had the sense to just go ahead and die, The Commons would have a fighting chance at sustainability — or even growth. What we’ve got instead is a young life-form suffocating under the animated corpse of an extinction-bound species.
There is, potentially, a model for sustainable journalism in Vermont. But it has nothing to do with daily newspapers. It’s the model of the small-town weekly — and also of Seven Days, the only print medium in Vermont that’s anything close to sustainable.
Daily papers are never returning to relevance. It’s a little scary to imagine a world without them, but there is growing evidence of alternative models that could actually survive in the digital landscape. It’s time for me and my fellow olds to let go of our attachment to The Daily Dinosaur and embrace the emerging media that might actually fulfill journalism’s crucial role in a free society.