Now that traditional editorial competition between daily newspapers, including joint-operating agencies, is down to 29 markets and falling, it is time to reevaluate what newspaper competition really means.
Too many journalists are trapped in the terminology of 50 years ago, when there were 73 editorially competitive markets, including joint agencies. This outdated mindset, which deems significant only head-to-head daily competition, is destructive to the real task facing newspapers. Reporters and editors who fail to update their thinking are part of the problem, rather than the agents for improvement they ought to be.
True, nothing feeds aggressive journalism better than two dailies battling over the same turf. But the economics of daily newspapering is rapidly making that kind of competition a subject for "remember when?" nostalgia. Instead, the competition facing dailies has become diffused, spread out to different kinds of media. Collectively, this new competition is just as important and potentially damaging to a newspaper's health as the long-gone daily competitor across town ever was.
Fortunately, there are signs that journalists are becoming more aware of how competition has changed and what it means for newspapers, readers and the quality of public discourse. The recent Society of Professional Journalists' national convention in Baltimore, for example, featured a well-attended seminar on how competition has changed and what it might mean for the quality of journalism.
At the seminar, John Carroll, editor of the Baltimore Sun, recalled his days in Philadelphia in the late 1970s when four dailies were battling for readers. One slow news day, the flamboyant - and now defunct - Philadelphia Journal desperately seized on the arrest of a farm lad caught in an unnatural act with a cow, headlining the story as a case of "moolesting." That shows, said Carroll, that good competition does not always produce good journalism.
The Baltimore Sun, no longer burdened by competition from the News-American, is now pouring its resources into an elaborate zoning effort to compete with weeklies and small dailies in the counties beyond Baltimore. To do otherwise, Garroll said, would sentence the Sun to presiding over a shrinking urban market.
The point is that when the Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, is beaten on a story by the Camden Courier-Post or one of the other 23 dailies competing in the Inquirer's overall market, the dismay should run just as deep in the Inquirer newsroom as when years before the old Philadelphia Bulletin got a scoop. …