Skip to content

Pittsblog: Back Again, and the End of News

There is more to say, as it turns out, about law and tech and entrepreneurship and Pittsburgh and various and sundry other things.

Since the end of Pittsblog (born 2003, suspended 2013) and the earlier version of this site (born 2004, suspended 2015), I’ve been looking for the right moment to get back on the ’round, and this morning, there it was: The Pittsburgh Tribune Review, one of Pittsburgh’s two daily newspapers, announced that it will discontinue print publication on November 30. A number of small-ish regionally and locally-oriented “publications” will carry forward, online only.

[The Trib’s announcement is here.]

At long last, Pittsburgh will finally join the ranks of cities with only one daily newspaper. As the old joke goes, if the end of the world finally arrives, be glad that you live in Pittsburgh, because you’ve got another five years to wait.  That’s how long it usually takes for new stuff to wash up on the banks of the city of Three Rivers.

More below the fold.

This — the end of print for the Tribune Review — is news only of a most local sort.  Pittsburgh is the latest in a long line of cities to lose one or more dailies to the various forces that pull and push daily journalism, ending but not beginning with the Internet.  In the 1990s, the shifting sands of department store economics led to the rise of Big Box stores and to the loss of display ads for daily papers.  The rise of Craigslist led to the end of most print classified advertising.  

Long before that, since at least the early 1960s, daily journalism was under economic assault of one sort or another.  Changing patterns of urban and suburban development and the erosion of the Downtown business core all over the US slowly undermined the circulation model that supported not just two but sometimes a healthy handful of dailies in even modest sized cities.  Those of us with bicycle-based paper routes during the 1970s were indirectly and unknowingly participating in the end of what might be called “industrial” journalism, newspapers hardened by and tailored to concentrations of people who worked in cities.  

As quickly as cities expanded in the US in the late 1800s, after World War II they began to fray.  Economically and culturally, the action started to move to the suburbs.  In a manner of speaking, every newspaper that landed in a suburban driveway was supplanting one sold on a downtown corner to a businessman headed to or from work in a headquarters office.

Pittsburgh’s pattern fits that model well enough.  The region’s and city’s industrial decline began in the late 1950s. The fabled Pittsburgh Renaissance of the 1950s and early 1960s, redeveloping large parts of what is now known as the “Golden Triangle” of Downtown Pittsburgh, was in large part an effort to mitigate its effects.  The origins of today’s local journalistic troubles can be traced to that era, too.  Pittsburgh once had the daily Press and the daily Post-Gazette, which combined some operations (to save money) in a joint operating agreement (JOA) in the early 1960s. Pittsburgh also had other dailies during the 20th century, including the Sun-Telegraph, but for practical purposes the Press and the Post-Gazette were the two papers standing as the JOA started operations.  

A strike in the early 1990s, the expiration of the Pittsburgh JOA, and the sale of the Press led to the emergence of the Post-Gazette, often thought of as the lesser editorial partner in the JOA, as a standalone newspaper and the dominant Pittsburgh daily. The current (and soon to expire) Trib expanded into Pittsburgh in the early 1990s from its origins in Greensburg, east of Pittsburgh.  Since I moved to Pittsburgh in the late 1990s, it’s been a two-paper town, sometimes only nominally (depending on one’s view of the Trib’s editorial style), but with two real and often competitive editorial staffs.  Now one of those will go away.  Many of the Trib’s writers and editors will involuntarily join the ranks of earlier cohorts (and their Post-Gazette colleagues) who have taken buyouts.

There isn’t really a lesson here, nothing to be done “next time.”  There is only the observation that yet again, no one and nothing is exempt, and if you care about something, don’t trust the market to supply it or keep it healthy.  Daily newspapers are businesses first and last, even if those of us who have been in them and around them for years rightly and genuinely believe that they contribute something special and important to public life.  My family was in the daily news business — editorial side — from the 1920s through the late 1990s.  I’ve seen all of this and more for years and years.

Pittsburgh exceptionalists, especially today, sometimes like to argue that Pittsburgh offers a kind of best of both worlds and a model for other former Rust Belt regions:  an economically productive (and sexy!) post-industrial economic model built on higher education, health care services, and tech-based research & development, in tandem with the legacy virtues of an Old World-style, community-based, low-cost, “gritty” culture.  The celebrants say:  Pittsburgh is back!  Pittsburgh has turned the corner!

But, well, no, not really.  It turns out that the combination may be feasible in theory but is really, really hard to pull off in practice, particularly once you look beyond sexy tech and gentrifying neighborhoods.  Private success and public virtue don’t go hand in hand these days, if they ever did.  Local economies and cultures are too exposed to larger scale influences, for better or for worse, to stand alone like the proverbial cheese.  Local markets meet national and global markets.  When it comes to making things for certain audiences, like the technology in autonomous vehicles, Pittsburgh-ish market capitalism does fine, mostly.  Other cities can do fine on that score, too, in their own ways.  

But when it comes to producing public goods — like physical infrastructure (bridges, for example), and cultural infrastructure (the news, for example, or social justice across struggling neighborhoods and communities) — markets as such are often terrible.  The demise of the Tribune Review is a reminder that Pittsburgh’s public sphere has a long, long way to go before it begins to match the brightness of Pittsburgh’s new private sphere.

Bringing this back to the news:

Newspaper Joint Operating Agreements got some retrospective legal blessing with the federal Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, exempting many JOAs from prosecution as antitrust violations.  That law was characterized by critics as the “millionaire publishers crybaby” act, because it offered a windfall to newspaper owners and little protection to the editorial staffs whose voices really matter.  Back at Pittsblog, I once had these really critical things to say about a local proposal to resuscitate the NPA in a way, in order to save daily journalism.  Markets are terrible; governments are often worse.  And in 2009, I predicted that one of Pittsburgh’s two papers had only a short time to live.  I was wrong about the paper and wrong about the timeline, but I wasn’t off by much.

In other words, I don’t have the answers, but along with others, I saw the questions.  The big question still remains:  What’s next?

Bonus video:  The opening of the original Lou Grant television show.