Huffpost Media
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Tim Giago Headshot

The Slow Death of American Newspapers

Posted: Updated:

I love newspapers! Not the kind you find on your computer screen, but the kind you can hold in your hand and on a Sunday morning, sit in your easy chair with a steaming cup of coffee, lean back, relax and read to your heart's content.

I fell in love with newspapers while stationed at the San Francisco Naval Shipyard on Hunter's Point in the San Francisco Bay. As a new fan of the San Francisco 49ers, I couldn't wait to get my hands on the Monday San Francisco Chronicle to follow the latest exploits of Y.A. Tittle, Leo "The Lion" Nomelini, Bob St. Claire, Joe "The Jet" Perry, and "Hustling Hugh" McElhenny.

Along the way I started to read and enjoy the rest of the Chronicle. I became hooked on Herb Caen and his Bagdad by the Bay daily column. His insight into what was happening on the streets of San Francisco also caused me to fall in love with "The City," as it was known by the insiders. And inadvertently, I became a newspaper columnist because of Herb Caen.

After leaving "The City" I never lost my love of newspapers. I returned home to South Dakota and found newspapers that were totally ignoring a large portion of the state's population, the Indian people. There was no connection between the residents of the Indian reservations and the editors of the larger dailies and weeklies. It seemed to me that the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota speakers in South Dakota were "out of sight and out of mind."

Most of the news about Native Americans was in the "Police Blotter" or in the court reports. In fact, the editor of one weekly newspaper in a community that bordered an Indian reservation got his "Indian news" by sending a reporter to scan the courthouse records on Monday morning. Since most Indians in South Dakota have distinct names such as Poor Bear, Eagle Elk, Lays Bad, etc., it was no problem for the white readers to immediately identify anyone involved in a criminal act as "Indian." The deduction: most people involved in crimes are Indian, therefore all Indians are criminals. That white perception of Indians was very strong in the 1960s, 70s, and even into the 80s and 90s.

I started an Indian-owned weekly newspaper, The Lakota Times (now Indian Country Today), 30 years ago to bring an end to that misperception of the Native people in this state.

It hurts me to see some of the newspapers I love falling on hard times. Income and circulation has fallen dramatically and giant newspaper conglomerates like Gannett and Lee Enterprises are cutting their news staffs to the bone. Sadly, I can see where this all started.

About 14 years ago I attended a convention of the National Newspaper Association in New York City. Of course the publishers of all of the major newspapers in America were in attendance. The keynote speaker at that convention was Bill Gates of Microsoft. Later I asked the president of the NNA why they chose Gates as their speaker. I told him that I believed the Internet would become the greatest enemy of newspapers. He scoffed at me and angrily dismissed my concern.

Even as my weekly newspaper, Indian Country Today, continued to grow, I refused to put it on the Internet. I figured, and I believe quite correctly, that if readers could get the paper free on the Internet, they would not subscribe to it. And I think that in an effort to keep up with technology, the decision by newspaper publishers to put their newspapers on the Net has been the cause of their continuing decline. When I sold Indian Country Today it was not on the Internet and it had a weekly circulation of 24,000. It is now on the Internet and its weekly circulation has declined to 7,000.

The "Old Gray Lady" of newspapers, the New York Times, is now suffering because their publisher chose to put the paper on the Internet. The bean counters at the Times discovered too late that the paper could not make the money on advertising on the Internet that it made the old fashioned way, by placing ads in the newspaper itself. They soon found that no advertiser would pay the price of an ad placed in the newspaper for an ad on the Internet. And advertising is the life's blood of the newspaper industry.

The Internet is doing what radio and television could not do: it is killing the American newspaper. And until every newspaper publisher in this country rebels and says "No, we are not going to put our newspaper on the Net," the slow death of newspapers will continue.

Of course, that is just the opinion of an old newspaper publisher, a man who loved nothing better than to walk into his newspaper office in the early morning and smell the intoxicating odor of freshly drying ink as the presses rolled in the printing department.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association and the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today, the Lakota Times, and the Dakota/Lakota Journal. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com

© 2008 Native American Journalists Foundation, Inc.