And then there was only one. . .

The news surprised no one in the Quad Cities news business.

The Dispatch-Argus succumbed to the same malady facing newspapers from coast to coast: falling subscribers, Googlizing of news into an everywhere commodity, double digit declines in display advertising, and loss of classified advertising to Craigslist and dozens of other online marketplaces.

The biggest question was why it took Lee Enterprises (with its competing Quad City Times) so long to gobble up its rival.

Both newspapers are shadows of their former selves, the Dispatch-Argus circulation at 25,000 versus nearly 70,000 for the combined Moline Dispatch and Rock Island Argus two decades ago. The Times hasn't fared any better, with daily circulation dwindling to around 30,000 compared with double that 20 years back.

Along with the steady decline in circulation, both papers have significantly cut back their editorial staffs, as well as every other department.

Had not Lee faced serious financial troubles paying down its $1.5 billion debt from acquisition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2005, the deal would likely have been struck a decade earlier.

Lee executives say they plan to keep the two papers separate with distinct editorial voices for now. But with essentially one owner/operator, the papers are likely to be more like two separate editions than independently run newspapers. As such, the Quad Cities joins pretty much every other metro community in the U.S. with a single news (print) source.

Long-time residents may recall the heyday of news choices in the 1970's and '80's when a politician could hold a news conference and attract up to four radio reporters (WQUA, KSTT, WHBF and WVIK), three television reporters (WHBF, WQAD and KWQC) and three newspaper reporters (The Daily Dispatch, The Rock Island Argus and the Quad City Times-Democrat).

So, what's the long-term outlook for the newly combined Times/Dispatch/Argus enterprise as a printed newspaper delivered to your front door each morning?

A highly unscientific panel of current and retired journalists thinks daily delivery of a printed paper will come to end within the next 10 years, and perhaps sooner.

Reducing the publication schedule also seems a likely scenario based on waif size of Monday, Tuesday and even Wednesday newspaper editions (along with the advertising needed to pay for the printing and delivery).

Digital advertising and online subscription models still struggle to offset the sustained decline in revenue from traditional print advertising.

At some point, equilibrium will be reached between online revenues and newsgathering expenses. Until then, the equation will be balanced by fewer newspapers, employing fewer reporters and providing less coverage of community news and events.

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