With subscriber rates and advertising dwindling, newspaper profits are getting squeezed due to the decreasing revenues in a high fixed-cost business. It remains to be seen whether these companies can turn things around fast enough to remain viable longer term. In the meantime, look for more consolidation, layoffs, and plant closures to reduce capital expenditures and costs. Shareholders may face possible dividend cuts if cash flow weakens to the point where it no longer can support the current payouts. I wouldn't rule out bankruptcies or unwanted takeovers from opportunistic suitors, who most likely would finance the majority of such acquisitions with debt. Servicing high-cost bank debt and junk bonds would make it that much more difficult for the old media to survive without major changes to their business models.
If the truth be told, the newspaper behemoths were in the best position to lead, rather than lag, the growth in the online media space. Forward-thinking managements, while perhaps not entrepreneurial enough, could have beaten the Googles, Yahoos, eBays, and Monsters to the punch, ensuring not only their survival but prosperity for years and perhaps decades to come. Instead, newspapers are downsizing while changing their business models to focus on local events and become more like magazines by devoting space to features rather than old news.
The idea that the sports columnist may no longer be a crucial part of the nation's best newspapers is something to be lamented. The gifted sports columnist often delivered the best writing in the entire paper (and often commanded the highest salary, as fans bought papers to read his take on the local action). Freed from the Journalism 101 tropes, the sports column was home to more emotional and livelier prose than that in, say, the local political columns. At his or her best, a [Tony] Kornheiser or a [Jackie] MacMullan weaved artistry and insights into 750 words. That blend of beauty and concision is a dying art. By contrast, there is ESPN.com's popular Bill Simmons, who is knowledgeable and funny, but reading his sprawling pieces can consume an entire lunch hour. The Internet's boundless newshole is a boon to information delivery, but less so to crisp, disciplined writing.
...The big-city columnist's demise has not been entirely self-inflicted. His position as the go-to guy for both perspective and insider dope has been diminished by the democratization of information and the ability to quickly disseminate it to the public. When everyone has an opinion, and a way to broadcast it, the ability to get the news in the first place is crucial. Yet the columnist cannot get into the nitty-gritty of a local team's games, because beat writers and obsessed bloggers tend to know much more about the squad and its doings on the playing field, as they parse every game, every dollop of information, every statistic. The columnist is also outflanked by teams themselves, who use the Internet to bypass the press and break news, and by the growing number of athletes who operate their own Web sites where fans can interact.
I wonder if we'll ever see a fresh, young, must-read columnist, someone who knows their sports and knows how to write, in a major newspaper again.