A Long Slow Goodbye?

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

I’ve been a dedicated reader of The News Tribune for decades.

Over those years, other news sources, newspapers, radio stations, television news channels have come and gone.

Entire formats and networks have risen, prevailed and declined. Some have evaporated without a trace. Some, like Seattle’s once great Post Intelligencer, have an online presence only.

Most of us largely, or even exclusively get what we call “news” from glowing screens that flicker their opinions and images, stir our worst impulses and passions and then are gone.

There is something inherently honest, or at least solidly real, even durable, about the printed page. A statement is made, and, for better or worse, held to. The words literally exist on the page.

Whether we agree with, or like or approve of those words, they are there – convicting, challenging, maybe even inspiring us – but there is no denying their existence.

At one level I can understand (but could never agree with) the impulse to ban books. Those printed words stand, sometimes scolding, occasionally insightful, and perhaps even revelatory. We just might come to the unwelcome conclusion that those people who lived before us were actually smart and decent people who understood – and lived – life as few of us might now.

Many years ago, I discovered libraries that hold archives of actual newspapers – some bound and some as topic related clippings in file folders from previous eras.

Newspapers, like every media, are never perfect or complete. But their biases are not ours. In most cases, the intent is to be as thorough and as factual as possible.

For some papers (and other media) the bias is obvious – even intentional. Others, like the best community news sources, do their best to welcome, even nurture, every voice of their region or audience.

But newspapers, again, like every media format, are at bottom a business, and need to pay their expenses.

Traditionally, newspapers have had two income streams to maintain themselves; subscriptions and ads.

Newspapers, like other media, for better or worse, exist in a spiral; the more subscribers, the more ads, and the more they can charge for ads. The opposite is also true, the fewer subscribers, the fewer ads, and the less they can charge for ads.

And newspapers, like every business, follow the relentless logic of Hemingway’s famous dictum on bankruptcy – “Gradually, then suddenly.”

The News Tribune has been on a decline for several years now.

McClatchy, the publisher of the The News-Tribune, The Olympian and dozens of other newspapers nationwide, filed for bankruptcy protection in February 2020.

The News Tribune’s building, and presence, once dominated downtown Tacoma – if not the entire South Puget Sound area.

It changed its name multiple times, most recently from The Tacoma News Tribune to the not quite so Tacoma-centric name, The News Tribune.

It was, for decades, Tacoma’s largest, most comprehensive daily newspaper. It was the central source of every informed, local citizen.

Some found it too conservative, some found it too liberal. But it was local and it was our voices.

Many of us knew, at some level, the writers and staff at “The Trib”. But then, besides shrinking in size, the paper became filled with voices not our own.

Standardized, homogenized and abstracted, the “Trib” become just another interchangeable collection of press releases.

There was a time when the Tacoma News Tribune had its own in-house cartoonist. In fact the “Trib” used to have its own in-house everything.

The “Trib” was once reliable, respected, profitable and local. And it was everywhere.

From its sports to it celebrity pages – even crime and editorial columns – were filled, for better or worse, with local names.

And also, for better or worse, local news was dynamic enough to warrant coverage. From corrupt police to incompetent politicians, no one was safe in the deceptions from the ever-watchful eye of The News Tribune.

But now, whatever set of reasons, the “Trib” barely raises an eyebrow with its reporting.

The News Tribune, like every “legacy” news format has its place. And we need it to do its duty.

There are things print publications can do that their online counterparts can never do. Online news sources (and their links) have a near effervescent life-cycle. In a recent survey, one fourth of web links were dead within six months. A newspaper, or even a clipping, is borderline eternal.

Besides being a reader/subscriber for more years than I could admit, I was also a columnist for several years.

Several readers told me that they saved many of my columns – I’m guessing that about as many passionately hated my columns – but either way, they read my columns and the paper as a whole and, again, for better or worse, my contributions, and those of dozens, if not hundreds of other writers and commentators are part of the permanent record of life in Tacoma and the greater South Sound area.

I’ll be sorry to see it go. But thanks to the unforgiving current marketplace, where news (like everything else) is sold to the lowest bidder, the “Trib’s” fate seems all too certain.

Who knows what will take its place – but something must.

We need something we can hold onto, something we can preserve and share, something that doesn’t flicker or need batteries.

There is something inherently stable, even human, about print media.

Print is memorable. But it is more than that.

The printed record stands as documentation that remains as a statement held and valued, no matter how archaic, prescient or refuted. And, more than any other format, preserved and available to all.

Online services were never, and will never, be available and accessible to all.

“All the news that fits” was once the slogan of many newspapers.

Online news, in contrast, floods and overwhelms us.

It washes over us in a barrage of glaring, distant and numbing (and often trivial) “news” stories.

There is little, if any, filtering or “curation” of the news online. And little, if any, accountability.

Without printed media we are poorer, less-informed and certainly more vulnerable than ever before.

We need our print media, whether we recognize it or not, perhaps more than ever.

As with all too many local papers, the only regional news is on the sports pages and the obituary pages. Either way, it is not enough and not a good sign.

The Trib used to be locally owned – even printed – but that was then, and to the loss of us all, this is now.

I can only hope that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the demise of print media, our ability to bear the truth and the decline of our contemporary human intelligence is “greatly exaggerated”.