Russ Smith is a Baltimore resident and occasional contributor to the Wall Street Journal. But once upon a time he was quite a potent figure in the world of “alt-weeklies,” founding the Baltimore City Paper in 1977 and a Washington counterpart four years later. Upon selling these journals later in the 1980s for $4 million, he founded the New York Press in 1988. It took the Press a while to effectively mount a conservative challenge to the Village Voice – complete with an insert edited by legendary right-leaning playboy Taki – but when it hit its stride, it forced the Voice, in 1996, to switch to free distribution to compete.
But by the early days of the millenium, Smith had a good inkling of what was to come, and sold the Press in 2002. Six years later he set up a website, Splice Today, where this month he formally pronounces the death of the American newspaper.
Smith’s column – or post, to use the new-media term – is quite worth reading. He begins by summoning up a scene from the recesses of memory: he and his parents and brothers, assembled around the breakfast table in the early 1960s, plowing through one New York and Long Island daily after another. The Times, Post, Herald Tribune, News, World-Telegram & Sun, Journal-American, Newsday, even the Mirror – all were there for the reading. Smith lovingly describes his father’s periodic observation that one need read no more than the opening and closing paragraphs of James Reston’s Times column to know what he had to say.
(in fact, as one who sometimes read Reston’s column can attest, often the opening and closing sentences sufficed for that. This did not stop President Lyndon B. Johnson from agonizing, day in and day out, over every single word of the column where it concerned his administration. For a modern-day equivalent, younger readers should try to picture President Obama fretting over the morning’s dailykos.com.)
Smith goes on to describe the family pawing over the sports news, the funnies, the editorial and entertainment pages, until it was time to go to school or work. And then he notes that his businessmen brothers, lifelong newspaper readers, no longer bother to even glance at the Wall Street Journal more often than a couple of days a week.
Tellingly, he observes that when Celia Farber, noted for her 25-year crusade against HIV as the cause of AIDS, learned that her writing on the subject had been ridiculed in a New York Times article, she complained to a friend who worked for the paper, who replied that he saw no reason for her to fret because the Times was “just fish wrap.” But Smith is kind enough, when quoting Ms. Farber’s statement that her father let his subscription to the Times lapse a few years ago, not to identify the gentleman by name. To realize that Barry Farber – one of the most famous figures in talk radio in the ’70s and ’80s (and still on the air today) and occasional candidate for Mayor of New York and the House of Representatives – no longer bothers with the Times is to realize how far the paper’s fallen.
Smith concludes by recounting a $5 bet he recently made that the Times will be sold by the end of next year, if some billionaire has the wit to offer the stockholders a share price well above the $7 or so it trades for now. He thinks $30 a share could wrest the paper from the Sulzburger clan; I would guess that as little as $22 would suffice. But would anybody in New York want to bother? In Los Angeles, where Tinseltown moguls still believe with childlike faith that to own a newspaper is to control a city’s or state’s political life, rumors are again circulating that David Geffen may buy the LA Times from its bankrupt owners. But a more realistic view probably prevails at the other end of the country.