What news is worth

The late, great Lewis Grizzard, a newspaper columnist who wrote out of Atlanta, had a set response for readers who sent him letters criticizing his work.

“What did you expect for a quarter,” he would ask.

Despite the humorist’s implication _ that you get what you pay for and you pay next to nothing for a newspaper _ newspapers give a ton of value for their ounce of cost, even if that ounce may come to more than a quarter these days.

The cost of what you get in newsprint alone can be more than the change you dig out of your pocket at a newspaper rack. You should then calculate the worth of the local, state, national and world news, the reports on sports, entertainment, the arts and a wide variety of lifestyle issues, the commentary and analysis on politics, the comics. And don’t forget the shopping information in the ads, which in effect subsidize your purchase.

On top of all of this, you get democracy. Our system of self-rule would have a very difficult time functioning if it weren’t for daily newspapers that provide far more consequential and necessary detail than you’ll ordinarily get on TV or radio, or for the investigative work of print journalists who dig up what the politicians want kept secret, or for the editorials that help you formulate your own opinions, even when you disagree with them.

So are newspapers finished? The hint _ it’s actually more than that _ keeps coming our way: in the latest report on circulation, in Knight Ridder’s sale of its papers, in the seeming danger of Internet competition.

That recent report shows a 2.6 percent circulation decline over six months ending in March. As a percentage of households reached, circulation has been in decline for decades now, a primary issue being that young adults don’t become newspaper readers the way their parents did.

The Knight Ridder papers did not appear to have the profit potential shareholders wanted in this business that is both capital-intensive and labor-intensive and that still delivers its product to your house every morning.

The Internet? It’s not just that it draws people to their computers to read the news, but that it could conceivably rob papers of a significant part of their advertising, especially classified ads. The barriers to entry in that part of the business have evaporated.

Newspapers have not been stupid about the challenges they face. Virtually every daily in the country has a Web site. Scripps Howard, which employed me for 27 years, which still distributes columns I write and in which I have a financial interest, has been dazzling in its branching out from newspapers and broadcast TV to cable TV channels and the Internet. What strikes me is that its relatively recent cable ventures are already making more money than its newspaper interests that go back more than 125 years ago. I also write for the Examiner papers in Washington and San Francisco _ fascinating experiments in free tabloid distribution.

This much is sure _ the newspaper industry is going to change. This much is also sure _ no one knows how. Some of those who tell me confidently that newspapers will be around forever because they are more pleasant and convenient to read than computer screens turn out to know nothing about newspaper finances. Those who tell me non-electronic news delivery is dead turn out to be people who think the new always displaces the old. It does not.

I have been privileged enough to have worked in this industry for 40 years, long enough to have used an Underwood typewriter that is now displayed in my house almost as a museum artifact. But of the four dailies that have at various times provided me and my family with a living, two are now defunct.

There are faults in this business, not the least of which is political bias of the liberal kind. Yet, better than any other medium, newspapers serve as what one historian has called the watchman on the hill, pointing to opportunities and warning of danger.

In the end, they have more than a quarter’s worth of bragging they can do. I hope the same can be said a half century from now.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)