Newspapers and other publications in Boston from the 1857 Boston Almanac. Click image to enlarge, then click that image to enlarge again. (Image copyright The City Record and Boston News-Letter, all rights reserved).
Compare the list of newspapers and other publications in Boston for the year 1846 with the list above.
The Boston Herald's sale of Community Newspaper Company last week has brought another set of questions about the state of the newspaper industry in Boston. Most of the focus has been on whether or not Boston should be a two newspaper town and what the sale of CNC means for the future of the Boston Herald. For examples, read Dan Kennedy, and again here, Mats Tolander, David Scott, the Boston Herald's own story, and Jay Fitzgerald who writes for the Herald and Hub Blog.
After first remembering fondly the history pieces I used to write for the Boston Tab under the "Boston Primer" heading, the question that comes to my mind is whether or not the days of the "full service" newspaper are over. By full service, I mean the form of newspaper we've come to expect for the pastone hundred years or so: a national news section, a metro/regional section, sports, arts, entertainment, etc. The internet has changed the way people access information. How much time and effort should a local newspaper spend on non-local sports news when sites like ESPN and CNN/SI exist? Do newspapers really need to focus energy on the entertainment industry when there are 24 hour cable channels devoted to this subject? And how much does a newspaper's duplication of content on the internet further cannibalize the print version?
These are questions which I'm sure are debated in media company board rooms across the country--certainly they're not new issues and my thoughts aren't particularly original. The irony is that while the relevance of entertainment coverage by newspapers may be eclipsed by other forms of media, the selling of movies is still local and the print advertising for movies continues unabated. On the other hand, Craigslist has devasted the classfied ad sections, Filene's will be gone soon taking away pages of ads, and mergers reduce advertising for banks. Meanwhile online advertising suffers from a much higher burden of proof of effectiveness than was ever required (or even possible) with print advertising.
Would newspapers be better served by focusing their time and money and local news, local arts, local sports? Certainly there are opportunities: the Dorchester Reporter, the South End News, the Back Bay Courant, the Bay State Banner, and the Beacon Hill Times all demonstrate that the demand exists for news at the neighborhood level. Blogs have also started to fill in the cracks in local coverage. My readers will note that I've joined up with Boston Blogs, a network of Boston based bloggers who are trying to address some of the issues of local content delivery. Are there niches available for subjects not covered by the print media? As the editor and writer of the only blog devoted to Boston's history and architecture I like to think so. The question becomes who are my readers and what is the potential size of my audience? What is the market for the City Record and Boston News-Letter? The list of publications available in 1857 shows the sheer variety and number of information sources available to Bostonians. The blogs of today are helping us regain the diversity of 150 years ago--but how do we ensure they survive?
Update: Immediately after posting this, I see Christopher Lydon's piece on local news over at Mass Inc. Go read that, and I will add, "yeah, what he said".
I also have a selfish reason for hoping the Boston Herald survives. As a historian, I wonder how much of the raw material for future researchers is being unrecorded. Email replaces written letters, fewer newspapers mean fewer news events reported, and the surviving dailies cut back on local reporting. We'll have pages and pages about Britney Spears's child, while the decisions made in local civic associations are lost to the ages. I've read thousands of newspapers from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, including the full run of William Lloyd Garrison's anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator, several of the Boston tabloids from the 1950s and 1960s, the Columbian Centinel, the City Record and Boston News-Letter (which was easy since it only published for a year), and Gleason's Pictorial, among others. We're information rich today, but will the future historian be the poorer for it?