We Need Newspapers, Now More than Ever

By March 4, 2009 Journalism No Comments

That’s what the editorial at Baylor University’s student paper “That Lariat” says.  And I agree. 

The trouble with the economy isn’t news to anyone. Newspapers have been reporting on it for months on end. But even these newspapers are feeling the effects of it, even if the economy troubles are creating an endless supply of stories. Journalism, and the newspaper business specifically, is suffering. And while it can be said that the decline of papers is inevitable with the rise of technology, the country needs newspapers.

This sums up the current situation journalism is facing. The so-called ‘old media’ of newspapers is dying, being replaced with electronic mediums such as TV, the internet and its associated bloggers. Unfortunately, what we are seeing is not only the eroding of the ‘old media,’ but of the  so-called ‘new media’ as well. Just earlier this week, 40 people lost their jobs at WTVH in Syracuse, NY.  This clearly suggests that problem is industry wide.

More after the bump:

Closer to home, Alvin Reid, longtime reporter at the St. Louis American found himself without a job last week. He now joins the scores of newspaper and broadcasts journalists that are joining the ranks of the unemployed. Last week, the Rocky Mountain News, the newspaper of record for much of the western United States ceased printing, just two months shy of its 150th anniversary. Last Friday was the last edition.  What killed the Rocky Mountain News? A massive shift in advertising, and declining circulation, and  joint agreement with the Denver Post. Usually the writing is on the wall for paper when it goes into a joint agreement with a paper that is a competitor. It has happened in many cities, in particular here in St. Louis, with the agreement with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, both of which were at one point four independent papers. 

The journalism industry, as seen in the example of the Rocky Mountain News, has been hit with a double-whammy: a decaying economy and ever-increasing technological changes and challenges. Mark Contreras, vice president of newspapers for Scripps, said that cutting staff would not be enough to pull the newspaper out of trouble, according to the Rocky Mountain News Web site. And online news, which many news outlets are turning to, is not profitable. Contreras said that online revenues would have to increase 40 percent each year for the next five years to equal the price it costs to run one newsroom.

Again, this is not only happening in newspaper newsrooms across the country, but in television newsrooms as well.  The expansion of JSAs or Joint Services Agreements, and SSAs, or Selected Services Agreements are proliferating throughout TV as well, as testimony with KPLR and KTVI.  With these changes there are cuts. What’s being done in St. Louis is the appearance of increasing news coverage, through making superficial changes to how news is presented.  KPLR’s “primetime news” is largely repurposed KTVI packages that were run from 5 to 6:30 pm. KPLR’s upcoming noon newscast will be essentially a rebroadcast of KTVI’s 11am newscast. Viewers, I suppose, can take small comfort that at least there is still news on KPLR, and with Sinclair’s KDNL, largely a black hole of news content, as the station has been known to not broadcast even network news to show infomercials. 

Now, the San Francisco Chronicle, bleeding red ink is faced with either being sold or shutting down if it cannot increase revenue.

And college newspapers are right on the heels of the professionals, many having to cut staff and Friday issues to make ends meet, according to uwire.com, a wire news service for college media. The newspapers at Boston University, Syracuse University, University of Utah and San Jose State University, just to name a few, have eliminated their Friday editions. New York University has cut Friday issues on top of reducing the circulation by 30 percent and reducing the staff’s pay. University of California-Berkeley has gotten rid of its Wednesday print issue and decreased the pay and size of the staff. Many of these cuts can be attributed to the decline in advertising sales.

This problem is not affecting the University News at St. Louis University, as we are, like Baylor University’s Lariat, supported by the University.  The same is true of SLU TV.  Both are funding largely by student activity fees, but both have commercials.

Journalism is too important to let newspapers die out. The media distributes information to the public. They check the government and large companies for corruption. They ask the questions that no one else will ask. The Watergate scandal of the Nixon era would never have been uncovered without journalism.

Sam Zell’s Tribune, under the debt of going private, and maintaing newspapers and news operations is reeling financially. Cuts at both TV and newspapers have left people without jobs and retirement benefits. And problems are getting worse by the week. Is the fault of the advertisers, keen on marketing to one race (white), one sex (women) and bypassing age groups (people over 55) that make the economy run? Or it is the fault of news directors and editors, trying to stay cutting edge, blurring the line between journalism and opinion, and pushing out the older journalists in the newsroom that provide the anchor that keeps news grounded because they are “too expensive?” Or is it the fault of the public and their indifference, that largely say they rely on us to bring them the news, and then not watch, read, or listen to what is produced? 

Newspapers are the purest form of journalism left in the country. When people pick up newspapers, they know they are picking up facts that have been checked, edited and are free of opinion unless otherwise noted. There aren’t blogs or reader-edited content like on the Internet. There aren’t pages filled with pseudo-news or celebrity gossip like many magazines. Readers know exactly what they are getting: facts.

There’s no easy fix for this decline in printed news. Most people would rather read news online because it’s convenient and free. One solution would be for newspapers to charge for online subscriptions, but this move would have to be industry wide. If all news sources began to charge, people would start to value information again. For journalism to survive, readers have to realize that no news is bad news.

Where do we go from here? There is no crystal ball that will tell us where the solutions are.  Do we tell those advertisers to advertise to all segments of the population, and not the narrow demos they cling to? How do we get news directors and editors to focus on news, and cut the opinion? 

If we can survive the onslaught of the current economic crisis, and the decline of print and broadcast medium, and get back to basics, we’ll be fine. I’ll be in the trenches with you.

%d bloggers like this: