Smooth-cheeked vampires suck blood from newsrooms

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Full confession: I went to see “Mamma Mia: Here we go again!” and I loved it. I wept, I laughed and I wanted to sing along. I remembered when I was young, lean and sailing through the Greek islands — surely I had anchored in that azure bay, swum in those translucent waters, seen that unspoiled landscape.

Actually, no. The movie was shot in Croatia, the sailboat depicted therein was far cooler than my creaky old wreck, and I never met any yearningly beautiful movie stars like Lily James or Amanda Seyfried — so much for nostalgia, I guess.

Consider the decline of the newspaper industry.

Here’s the romanticized storyline: Once upon a time, every city in America had a daily newspaper, and big cities had several. Local owners were deeply connected to their cities, and hired publishers, editors and reporters who reported the facts without fear or favor. They brought down crooked politicians, called sleazy businesspeople to account, stood up for the powerless and provided an essential community function. The dailies knit America together, and great dailies like The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times embodied America’s promise and greatness.

It was a golden era, a special time — and now, it’s almost over. The vulgarians that control print dailies nowadays are unashamedly looting them, cutting editorial staffs, selling iconic headquarters buildings and paying little attention to their few remaining faithful and supportive readers. And as for the news, it’s a digital commodity, a mildly profitable plaything for the controlling bros of social media.

Yet for all its counterfactual froth, today’s uncurated online journalism isn’t without precedent. A century ago, the founders of The Denver Post, Frederic Bonfils and Albert Tammen, merrily sensationalized the news, skewered their foes and plugged their friends. In “Timber Line,” one-time Post reporter Gene Fowler told their story.

Irritated by a “lifeless banner,” Tammen changed it to “JEALOUS GUN-GAL PLUGS HER LOVER LOW.” Informed that the headline was ungrammatical, Tammen said “That’s the trouble with this paper — too goddamned much grammar. Let’s cut the grammar and get out a live sheet.”

And like Gawker, Breitbart, the Daily Caller and the Huffington Post, Bonfils and Tammen went after their enemies mercilessly.

“They assailed almost everyone of prominence,” wrote Fowler, “were that person not amenable to the newspaper’s tactics or useful to the Post politically or in business.”

Bonfils and Tammen made a lot of money, had a lot of fun and lived to old age, despite having been shot by attorney W.W. Anderson, who barged into their office one afternoon. Their foes rejoiced — one frequent target of the Post’s wrath, Colorado Governor Charles Spalding Thomas, sent Anderson a bouquet and a note while in jail and awaiting trial.

“I congratulate you on your intention,” wrote the governor, “but must condemn your poor aim.”

With all that, the Post was a pretty good paper. Newspapering was a profitable, competitive business, and it didn’t hurt to have substance as well as flash.

Newspapers no longer generate much wealth. We may mourn Tronc’s decapitation of the New York Daily News, but print dailies, like luxury passenger rail, are artifacts of another age. The News had a daily circulation of 2.4 million in 1947, which had declined to 200,000 in 2017. Wicked hedge funders and heartless newspaper chains aren’t to blame — we are. New York subway riders aren’t buried in their tabloids, but mesmerized by their smartphones. Schumpeter’s gale of creative destruction took down the News, just as it did the New York Central Railroad.

To thrive nowadays, print newspapers need either billionaire owners (Phil Anschutz, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, John Henry) or a unique and unreplicable business model (The New York Times). Otherwise, they’ll just be bled to death by the smooth-cheeked vampires of Tronc and Digital First Media.

I wish it weren’t true. I wish I were tall, tanned and 21. And yeah, I’m an unreconstructed print guy. I subscribe to three daily newspapers (Gazette, NYT, Denver Post), as well as multiple magazines and weeklies. I mourn the great Daily News banners (“Ford to City: Drop Dead.”) and wish that those 2.4 million 1947 readers could be resurrected and read this one:

“News to City: We’re not Dead.”