Publishers across America have spent the past decade trying to prove that they “get it” when it comes to the Web. Nobody wants to look like a technological stick in the mud. The Internet is the future. Shoot, it’s today. Everyone understands that. And so newspapers have tried to show that they’re up to the task of providing information in a new medium.
But how do you survive financially when you make free samples the staple of your business? The embrace of news via the Web has been great for consumers, but for the newspaper industry, it’s the business equivalent of a restaurant putting entire meals on the sample tray. Could you really be surprised if such a restaurant began laying off cooks and wait staff, or if they soon closed their doors?
No doubt, the “free” news flow has its price. We see it in the constant stream of bad news about the news — the pay cuts, the layoffs, the shrinking coverage areas, the paper closings. When you click on the AJC website, you probably don’t give much thought to the fact that some paper delivery guy is no longer hurling pre-dawn missiles toward driveways or that a press room now sits silent when it used to roar. The Web is a convenient new medium, but there are many missing paychecks as a result.
Of course, in this economy, most everyone’s hurting, but big papers are looking more and more like mighty mastodons, stumbling toward extinction. Major metros used to serve as the “gatekeepers” of national and international news to their markets. Now, no one needs to buy the local daily to learn what’s up with the world outside of their city limits. The wire service — well, we’re all wired now.
While small papers also face real economic troubles, they have never earned their bread and butter with news from Wall Street or Warsaw. Community newspapers that continue to focus on providing local stories in print are in a better position to weather the hard times than bigger papers, which are often cash-strapped, saddled with debt and giving all of their goods away for free online.
While technological innovation has been embraced by the newspaper industry, business innovation has not accompanied that change. For instance, despite the huge commitment to the Web so many papers now make, only 8.4 percent of newspaper profits in the third quarter of 2008 were generated by online advertising (Newspaper Association of America).
Well, why should anyone care if newspapers survive?
For many, “the press” is about as lovable as a skin infection, something that grates on your nerves but you can’t ignore. People criticize the press for being politically motivated. And there are examples of organizations with overt partisan aims, but I would argue that the institutions that do this are ultimately focused on winning over a target market for financial reasons. They project political leanings and abandon objectivity in order to win a target audience.
Nevertheless, I think this is generally the exception to the rule, at least in newspapers. It’s my experience that newspaper reporters generally try to hold true to the old journalism teachings, the idea that your aim is to honestly present the world around you to the public, not to project your own feelings to the world. When a newspaper reporter steps into city hall, the state capitol, Washington or Kabul, the reporter recognizes that his allegiance needs to be to the reader, not the person or party he’s covering. He also recognizes that if he willfully publishes in a straight news story his own feelings about what he’s covering, then he’s violated the ethic of his profession.
As reporting jobs are phased out, many see the blogosphere as the replacement to newspaper reporting. But if blogging is a form of journalism, it’s one that embraces opinion making, not discourages it. For instance, a blogger is a lot more likely to shout down a public official on the Web than he is to call up that official and soberly ask him for a quote on his questionable action. The blogger may have a great point to make, but somebody still needs to get the quote, while leaving personal feelings out of the matter. And, at least so far, that’s not an activity that many bloggers seem interested in.
Ultimately, a society is better off if there are private businesses with solid resources working to produce news — organizations willing and able to devote time and expense to foreign war coverage or months of investigative digging.
When government officials know that they’re being watched, they’re more inclined to do right. Effective newspapers are a private counter to excessive government power — some leverage on the citizens’ side. Meanwhile, a good newspaper points out the positives in a community so folks can appreciate them, while highlighting the negatives so people can know what needs to be fixed. In short, it’s a positive to look honestly at both the positive and negative.
For decades, the newspaper has been a given in most every community. We expect a local paper everywhere we go. It’s part of American life.
I’ve always tucked papers into my suitcase whenever I take trips to other towns. I sure hope I can keep up that practice in years to come.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.
Small papers willing to evolve will prosper. Any business unwilling to adapt to change will fail. I think mainstreet news has come a long way in the past year, offering online ads and comments to articles.