I can count on it like clockwork… some large market daily newspaper closes its doors, or goes to an all-online edition, and the whispers start up again.
So many are so quick to ring the death knell for newspapers, and I can only wonder why.
When word first broke that the New Orleans Times-Picayune would no longer be in print every day, the news was met with surprise and alarm. For a city with a rich heritage of colorful political intrigue and no shortage of corruption, it seemed that if a daily couldn’t make it there it couldn’t make it anywhere. Though it will remain in business, it’s only as a hobbled weekly instead of a virile daily.
But can they keep up?
New Orleans is a metropolitan area of well over a million people, how can three papers a week even begin to capture the news of the day? Shoot, our paper covers a rural county of only about 50,000 with a fraction of the crime and municipal events that the Crescent City enjoys, and it’s everything I can do to keep up with all the various comings and goings. I average about 15 stories a week, and there’s plenty I miss.
Still, more than that, newspapers are different than most businesses. Whereas most companies need only concern themselves with making a profit and/or keeping their stockholders happy, newspapers are burdened with representing the public interests with regard to local businesses and elected officials. For every sentimental feature or local interests article, there’s dozens of tedious stories on civic meetings, property values, sales tax, and unemployment that are published to keep the public informed of what their leaders are doing.
While articles on lurid crime or soft-focus features are often the most-read, I would argue that the aforementioned are the most important.
In times of yore the profit margin for the newspaper industry was so high that anyone could make a buck in the publishing racket. Thus, it was nothing for even small newspapers to maintain a full staff with specialized beats to focus upon. With your beat, you could spend an inordinate amount of time lingering around the courthouses to pick up leads, or spend a solid day crafting a knockout exposé. With so many hands at work, there was seldom a shortage of coverage. Take any Henderson Daily News masthead from the 1950s through even the first few years of the 21st century and you’d typically see a bevy of editors and healthy stable of staff writers. Frankly, I think employing less experienced staff and producing lower-quality news is a quick way to turn more readers away from newspapers, hastening their decline.
As the technology paradigm has shifted away from the Gutenberg model of the 15th Century, and with it the keening eyes of the public, newspapers are struggling to maintain their once-absolute appeal. With so many advertising dollars jumping to the Internet, the newspaper business model has crashed, and newsroom cuts have hit everywhere. Often, the newspaper coverage that gets axed first is the stuff that appears to contribute the least to the bottom line.
I’ve heard the arguments that print media is dead because of timeliness, that newspapers are hamstrung by having to be printed and delivered; while electronic media is instant and can be delivered in real time to peripheral devices.
Well, that’s certainly true. But who does that? Last time I checked, our technology has not yet developed robots with the sentience required to ask questions and compile facts in a coherent and readable style. So we’re talking about people.
“I never pick up an actual paper,” one friend of mine told me yesterday as we were talking about this very issue. “When y’all’s Facebook page updates with that day’s stories, I just click on anything that looks interesting and read it that way.”
But still, someone wrote those stories and someone is updating the website. Whether it’s being read on television or being posted on Facebook, the origin of the story is found in people. I don’t know how the mode will change, but the method never will.
In 2010, the National Newspaper Association provided some heartening survey statistics. More than three-quarters of respondents said they read most or all of a local newspaper every week, and a full 94 percent said they paid for their papers.
Now I wouldn’t be so bold as to predict the future, not in a media landscape that is constantly shifting. But when we engage in these discussions about how to “monetize” journalism, it’s refreshing to remember a different kind of bottom line, one that lives in the hearts of newspaper editors and reporters who keep churning out news for the corniest of reasons: because their readers depend on it.
Do newspaper people have to adapt to the changes in technology? Of course, but it’s nothing to fear or dread.
So long as people still want to know what’s going on, newspapers aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.