How Walmart Helped Destroy Local Journalism

By Jack Limpert

Much has been written about how the Internet has changed reading habits, causing newspapers and magazines to lose circulation. That change began to hit hard about 20 years ago when broadband replaced the old AOL dial-up service and Google made web surfing easy, fun, and useful.

But what really destroyed many good editing and writing jobs was an earlier digital revolution—one that started 35 years ago and cost newspapers and magazine lots of advertising pages and revenue.

In the 1980s, much of the ad revenue in newspapers and magazines came from locally owned department stores, clothing stores, furniture stores, banks, and other businesses. As editor of the Washingtonian magazine, I knew most of the people who ran those Washington businesses. They were key players in the life of the city—I talked with them often at lunches and at meetings of organizations trying to make the city better. We loved the city and felt we were in it together.

But about 1990 the erosion of local business in Washington was accelerating. In the late 1980s better and faster computers were giving businesses—such as retail stores and banks— the ability to become more efficient and expand across the country. Walmart was one of retail’s early adapters: It led the information technology charge to fuel its global expansion.

In Washington, Home Depot and Lowe’s arrived and put Hechinger’s, our locally owned hardware store chain, out of business. It was exciting when Bloomingdales’s brought New York sophistication to the nation’s capital. Little did we know that the national chains—Macy’s, Nordstrom, and others—would take over our local department stores.

For local newspapers and magazines, the change meant decisions on buying ads were no longer made by people in Washington who knew us and understood the role we played in the city—now the decisions to buy ads were made in New York or Cincinnati or Seattle by people who only saw journalism as numbers.

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