Like the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Times has been supported by a marginal religious institution – in the case of the WashTimes, the Unification Church – willing to spend big bucks to buy influence for its opinions. Like the Monitor, the WashTimes has become too heavy a financial burden for its patron, and will now be “reoriented” out of existence.
Both newspapers operated on what I call the “sugar daddy” business model, which made them immune to recent catastrophic declines in advertisement and circulation. I have wondered whether this model might keep alive a few vestigial newspapers into the foreseeable future. It still might, but the fate of the Monitor and WashTimes reveals different, but equally potent, Darwinian pressures working against newspapers which depend on largesse.
In this model, everything hangs on the sugar daddy, and the sugar daddy is subject to mortality, changes of attitude, and losses in the stock market.
I mostly read the WashTimes’ baseball section, to learn about my beloved Nationals. It was journalism, which is to say, superficial and repetitious, but writing on the home baseball team was more prolific and energetic than at the WaPo (which worships at the altar of the Redskins.) Now, the entire sports section of the paper has been terminated.
Mark Zuckerman, senior man in baseball coverage, has written a rather elegiac column about his own personal “reorientation”: from dealing with sports stars to finding himself unemployed. Because it sounds a bit like the speeches of the old Indian chiefs, full of dignified regret and mourning for a dying way of life, I believe it’s worth quoting here.
This development did not come totally out of the blue. We’ve been on pins and needles since late-November, when we were all informed at least 40 percent of the company would be laid off in the coming months as the Times sought to “refashion” itself as a specialized news operation, focusing primarily on politics and investigative reporting. It was immediately clear sports would not be part of the new-look newspaper, at least not in any kind of substantial form.
That didn’t make the official news today any easier to swallow. The words still sting as much as anything I’ve ever been told in my life. Not because I’m scared about trying to find new employment (though I am). No, the most excruciating aspect of this news is the stark realization that comes with it: Neither I nor most of my two dozen colleagues are likely to ever cover sports for a newspaper again. The business is shriveling up, and it may not be long before it ceases to exist at all.
A glance at the chart above shows Zuckerman to be totally right. The best year to look for a job in journalism was 1988. After that, the deluge.
Zuckerman represents the human face of the cold statistics, and he gives voice, with far more grace and honesty than the political hacks, to the pain and loss of those who truly believed in the ideology of news.
The WashTimes‘ new strategy will focus entirely on “investigative reporting and coverage of national politics, geopolitics, international and domestic business and economics, and cultural issues.” Zuckerman believes this will cause “the paper to lose readers. A lot.” He’s right again. The number of people interested in political trivia has always been small. A sports reporter, at least, writes on a subject for which there is a built-in audience.
The paper has irredeemably lost one member of that audience: me. So let me conclude by saying, goodbye, Washington Times – hope you enjoy your afterlife in the dinosaur graveyard.
UPDATE: Karen Goldberg Goff, another WashTimes journalist who lost her job in the year’s end purge, has decided on more desperate measures: