For whom the bell tolls, it tolls for newspapers

(Copyright 2008)

The WALTHER REPORT

By Tony Walther

With news that the Christian Science Monitor will cease daily print publication next spring and go totally online and the constant reports of declining newspaper circulation and advertising revenues, it seems that the death knell of newspapers as we have known them has finally tolled.

As I wrote in a previous blog, the demise of newspapers was said to be imminent when I took my first journalism classes in 1972. That was premature, but prescient, nonetheless. At the time, they thought maybe people might start reading modern electronic newspapers on some type of board that resembled the conventional newspaper. The PC had not come into prominence yet, let alone the BlackBerry.

I have read that some local newspapers across the country are doing well, but that is only some. The local seven-day per week newspaper where I live in the northern end of California’s Sacramento Valley seems to be dying a slow and painful death (and they keep telling us so in their editorials and have even hinted they may go to less than daily, possibly cutting out as much as two or three days). Their only hope, they think, is to keep their online version going. Somehow I think that if they drop their regular print version, the online version will disappear too, or maybe not, but it won’t be the same animal. And what the far away corporate moguls do not get is that the local newspaper has a monopoly on local news and people are interested in it – they just wish the paper would present more of it and in a more professional and comprehensive and consistent manner.

Newspapers as a source of immediate news for the most part went the way of the dodo bird a long, long time ago, kind of.

If there is really some breaking news, especially an accident or natural disaster, radio and TV are going to have it first and while it is still news. But for the most part, they only do what amounts to headlines. And you have to devote a lot of time to watch expanded coverage, and you only get the presentation on their schedule, and then you still don’t get the detail that can be provided in the more convenient printed form.

I have always wondered what would happen if there were no conventional news media such as newspapers. Then we really would be down to unchecked rumor and a mismatch of style in presenting news that might become incomprehensible and/or unreliable.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the internet, and it is the only way I get most of my news, except the most local of news, for which I still have to depend upon my local newspaper. There is a website operated by two former local newspaper employees but so far it is not offering anything substantial. It’s hard to find time to work for nothing. And quality is still a problem.

I worked as a small town radio reporter for about nine months once. I learned that except for the actual on-the-spot news, traffic accidents and once or twice a courtroom verdict, most of our news came out of the local newspaper. We at least had the decency to rewrite it and add to it a little. When I worked at the paper, the jerk radio reporter just read my stories verbatim and didn’t even attribute them, after I did the leg work. I will say, though, that once when I worked in Arizona, a radio station read one of my stories and gave my name – thanks.

I noticed through the years that a lot of stories on the nightly TV news were generated from stories that had first appeared in major daily newspapers, sometimes days earlier, or were from stories out of news wire services, generated by newspaper reporters or wire service reporters. (In a kind of related issue, AP or Associated Press, a kind of newspaper cooperative wire service, is losing clientele.)

Newspapers have provided the base for news that is presented in all mediums. Even now it is common for a TV reporter to do a standup report and hold up a copy of the local newspaper as a visual prop to show what big news something is.

Then there are the bloggers, such as me. I don’t do news these days, just commentary. But I learned a long time ago after losing a newspaper job to a corporate downsizing that I couldn’t just do the same job, but on my own (I thought of putting out a local newsletter). No one was going to pay me to drive around or make phone calls to collect news. And blogging had not come into being yet. But even today, I am not making any money at this (although some enterprising thieves do snatch my blogs and post them on their websites which contain paid advertising – probably Republicans!).

A story in the New York Times (online of course) noted that at a recent media conference someone worried that with the demise of the conventional news media (to include newspapers) the internet might become a “cesspool” of useless information (more than it already is, I add). And it wasn’t some disgruntled print journalist making that observation. It was Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google.

My point is that there needs to be some base and some reliable check on the accuracy of information and even a gatekeeper to sort fact from rumor or legitimate news from gossipy tidbits (not that any method is totally reliable in this or that everyone agrees on what constitutes legitimacy or gossip).

If newspapers survive online, maybe the support structure of editors and such will survive, although I have my doubts.

Another thing to consider is that the internet is not likely to remain essentially free.

As an example, once newspapers no longer make their revenue off of the printed paper medium, they will need new sources of income. Some reputable organizations are already either charging for all of their stories or are giving us only teaser paragraphs and then charging for access to the rest.

A dirty secret is that news is a commodity that has been virtually given away free for a long time. The result is that news can be hard to sell.

Some specialized types of news are probably easier to put a price tag on, such as that handled by the Wall Street Journal.

We may end up with a world where only those who can afford it will be fully informed.

Even though I already knew it, I got first-hand confirmation of the fact that news is not what makes newspapers money (at least not directly) when I took my first newspaper job. We as news staffers were often reminded that the management felt we were mere troublesome overhead. It was the selling of advertising that made money (an ad salesperson paid directly for his or her own salary out of his or her own sales). The cost of each paper, at that time a dime, paid for part of the cost of printing the newspaper, nothing more. It was a small daily newspaper.

The newspaper’s profit was dependent upon the amount of advertising it sold. But due to the mechanical requirements of printing, there is often a break point where you have to choose between having not enough room for news or possibly having way too much space to fill (and not because there is not enough news, but production takes time and money – that was even more so in those pre-computer days). Often I would hear things like, “gosh I hate to have that much news.” That can be interpreted in different contexts, but ad people generally prefer tight pages, filled with ads and a little news filler in between. I often frankly wondered why the small newspapers, which did not and still don’t for the most part, have any respect or understanding of journalism, even bothered to run any news content at all. Of course without some news content they could not call themselves newspapers, but there is an animal called a shopper – in fact for the most part, that is what our local newspaper is. Shoppers supposedly are not able to command as much for their advertising rates.

I actually enjoy reading a real paper newspaper and find it much more comfortable and less fatiguing as opposed to a computer screen (and don’t you find yourself doing a lot more skimming on the screen?), although for the volume and immediacy of information, the computer is best.

And I believe I blogged once before that I think some type of medium that looks and feels like a newspaper, but that is electronic and can be updated immediately could hold promise.

Meanwhile, I hope CNN, Google, Yahoo, and the New York Times, and others keep posting fee news and information for me.

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