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Shrinking papers, smaller world

The Times is shrinking!

No, not this Times. (Well, actually, this one too, but less dramatically). I mean the New York Times: the Gray Lady, the newspaper of record, the paper the rest of us love to hate. It got liposuction this week, losing an inch and a half in width.

Yeah, well, whatever.

I admit -- strike me dead, God! -- that this was my first reaction to the news, though here in New York, where I’ve been living temporarily, many reacted as if the sky had fallen.

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New Yorkers think the format of the New York Times is sacred. I’ve never understood this. When read on the subway, the inky and oversized Times formerly required either the expert paper-folding skills of an origami champion or a ruthless willingness to elbow fellow passengers in the eye. So what would be so wrong with making the paper a little more compact, kind of like a magazine?

It’s not as if the New York Times is the only slimmed-down newspaper. The Wall Street Journal had a major tummy tuck last year, dropping three inches in width overnight, while the Los Angeles Times has been on a more gradual diet, with further discreet slenderizing planned for the future, down to the now-standard 12-inch national width. Newspapers, the trees of America thank you!

Oh, right. But there’s that news thing.

These newspapers didn’t shrink to ease the lives of commuters or to save the nation’s forests. They went on crash diets because all that fancy food they were eating was busting their budgets. But it’s not just about losing a few inches of paper. It’s also about losing words, otherwise known as “news.” At the New York Times, for instance, readers may see as much as 10% less news.

At every major daily, scrawnier print editions have also been accompanied by deep cuts in newsroom budgets. That means fewer reporters -- fewer persistent, nosy people with a mandate to wander around the world asking questions and not taking “no comment” for an answer. That’s why these recent page trims aren’t just cosmetic surgery. They’re amputations.

A democracy needs reporters. True, journalism hasn’t entirely covered itself with glory lately (think the New York Times’ Judith Miller and her misleading prewar reports on WMD in Iraq). But for every Judith Miller, there have been reporters such as the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth R. Weiss and Usha Lee McFarling, who, with photographer Rick Loomis, won a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for a series on the world’s distressed oceans, or the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, whose recent reporting brought out previously unknown details on how Vice President Dick Cheney acquired unprecedented power within the Bush administration.

That’s old-fashioned reporting, the kind that independent bloggers mostly lack the funds and training to do. If newspapers shrink their budgets and stop funding that kind of journalism, the blogs and television outlets that feed off newspaper reporting will have little hard news to sink their teeth into.

In this age of globalization, terrorism and war, we particularly need good reporting on the rest of the world. But as newspapers shed column inches and reporters, it’s foreign news reporting that has suffered most. Budget cuts have forced many once proud newspapers, including the Boston Globe and the Baltimore Sun, to close their foreign bureaus. Only the largest dailies -- the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times -- still maintain overseas bureaus, but even they have had to cut back.

You might argue that the decline of foreign reporting doesn’t matter because, thanks to the Internet, you could go directly to the websites of many excellent foreign newspapers. But few of us have the time (or linguistic skills) to scour the world’s newspapers.

Whether we read them in print or online, good newspapers do the work for us. But when the shrinkage of print editions is accompanied by shrinking coverage of world news, the world around us gets smaller and smaller until it contains little more than local scandals and the latest celebrity gossip.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman opines, in his bestselling book of the same title, that “the world is flat.” But that’s only part of the story. In these days of shrinking newspapers and shrinking global news coverage, the world, for most Americans, is in danger of becoming as flat as a postage stamp -- and almost as small.

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rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com


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