The WALTHER REPORT
By Tony Walther
In general, newspaper circulation and ad revenues are in a free fall. Newspaper readership has been declining for a couple of decades or more. In fact, when I began in journalism back in the early 70s, the demise of the newspaper was seen as imminent. The institution survived.
Some local “niche” newspapers are doing better, reportedly, but overall, the trend is down, down, down.
Americans don’t read as much as they used to. And now the internet, through which I blog and e-mail this column, has really put the screws to the old-fashioned hold-in- your-hands paper newspaper.
Now, newspapers have gone online. At first it was just an adjunct to their traditional real newspaper, but now some are considering that online may be their future. I have mixed emotions about this. On the one hand, I see an opportunity for print media to survive, albeit in an electronic form. On the other hand, I don’t see how you replace the experience, the feeling of holding your own newspaper in your hands and being able to turn the pages and the convenience of carrying it where you go. Maybe people just don’t care for that anymore. But I got to thinking about that the other night as I was reading a novel. I had earlier in the day perused some novels online. As I lay on the living room couch, holding a paperback book in my hands, I realized that the experience reading the real thing, instead of following the words on a computer screen, is much more enjoyable. It’s just an altogether different medium.
Maybe a little off the track here, but I like watching movies on the big screen, as opposed to on a television screen. It’s a different form of the art.
But back to newspapers. The declining readership, which has led to declining ad revenue, has threatened to destroy the business. With the explosion of information (and misinformation) available via the internet, newspapers have been crowded out.
The biggest place they have been hit is hard news. Since I constantly scan the internet, I rarely, if ever, find any new news in my newspaper – that is on the national and world level. Now this has been a fact for decades if you look at print vs. television (but TV news is headlines and over simplified reports). Now we have instant news via printed, or written, word on our computer screens. So, by the time I get the news in my paper it seems as if it is ancient history.
The same is not true for local news. So far, in my neck of the woods anyway, my local newspaper is the only medium providing anything near comprehensive local news. The local radio stations and television stations only provide a few headlines, and they often come straight out of the newspaper. In fact, it seems strange that our local newspaper can beat the local television stations with the news.
Local TV news in the hinterlands where I live is still predominantly in the nature of cute pet stories. And you can’t compare broadcast with print anyway. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.
There is a problem, though, because the chain that owns our local newspaper is losing money, it has cut back on the newspaper’s staff and, ironically, after going to an emphasis on local coverage, so much so that cute dog stories make the lead on the front page, it has less real local news. And the powers that be can’t figure our why their readership continues to decline.
But the local editor proudly proclaims that his paper’s online readership is improving and that it is the wave of the future. But looking at its online content, I am not impressed. I suspect that the online version could take over eventually, but the end result will be a mediocre presentation with still limited readership. I don’t know how much advertising revenue the newspaper has been able to attract with the online.
One long-time writer left the paper – she was either fired or quit, depending on what version you choose to believe – and is posting her own website, but it is not really a news presentation. It does seem to have some advertising on it, mostly business cards. She has actually managed to scoop the local newspaper on a few stories, although nothing major. Mostly it’s just local folks writing about their hobbies and businesses, some chit chat and self promotion.
Someone had suggested that all the former and disgruntled local newspaper writers ought to get together and put out their own online newspaper. I think that would be a problem for anyone who has to make a living. The first thing I discovered after losing my last newspaper job in a corporate downsizing, is that all those years someone was paying me for making those phone calls and driving around and doing all that leg work I did as a reporter. Yeah, I was of the old school. I did leg work. Online was in development then, but I realized that I could not afford to gather news on my own.
Ad revenue is what makes everything possible. Disgruntled out of work newspaper writers would have to practically create their own traditional business model, another newspaper, in order to compete with the only game in town.
Traditional newspapers don’t even know quite what to make of online. They jumped into it several years ago, giving everything away for free. Some have started to charge for it, but have found folks reluctant to subscribe, when they can get so much for free on the internet. Advertisers want to know how many people will actually see their ads. They like to think that there is a reader commitment to the medium they buy space in or on.
Maybe eventually when there are a lot fewer real newspapers and more online sites start charging for what they present, the picture will change. And I think that is the way it will go.
Media News Group CEO Dean Singleton runs a chain that owns lots of newspapers, big and small. He’s the scourge of real journalists, but he is powerful and he had some things to say recently at a newspaper confab:
He said that online is the future, but that newspapers need to maintain their core, real newspapers, because it will “finance the future.”
Most interesting to me, though, was that he said journalists need to get off their high horses and get down to the readers’ level (that, of course in my paraphrasing). Reportedly, what he actually said in part was that newspaper folks should “…quit writing and editing for each other…” and “…move to a print model to match the times.” (The Singleton stuff was out of Editor and Publisher’s online site.)
I don’t know what Singleton meant exactly. I hope he didn’t mean quit editing for grammar and readability, and I hope he didn’t mean everyone should write in blog or e-mail style as some do with a little i for the personal pronoun and all those texting abbreviations.
Some so-called local newspapers run unedited news releases and copy locals bring in with all of their misspellings and commas and colons and semi-colons stuck in here and there at any place for no apparent reason. Some folks think that anytime you use an S you have to use an apostrophe. Grammar is not meant to be some type of esoteric exercise, it has to do with clear communication. If you have read this far, you may feel I need my own grammar remediation – but I try (even if I do make up some of my own rules).
Back to whether folks will pay for online: If you have some reliable and valuable information, people are willing to pay for it. The Wall Street Journal does not present its work for free (just a few teaser articles that say you have to sign up to get the rest of the story), and some others have gone that way also.
The energy crisis could play into all of this too. As oil becomes more and more expensive, the production of electricity that runs the internet gets pricier too. It may become too expensive to provide info over the net for free. I did not come up with that. I heard that on a PBS business report.
Well, another ramble from me, but I think online is the future of what we now call print journalism. I am happy it has a future. You have to be able to read news and absorb it to be an informed citizen of the world.
We have already seen what happens when large numbers of the public choose to keep themselves in the dark because they just can’t find the time to read or possibly never learned how to read. For one, politicians run amok. A man who has no ability or inclination to look at issues objectively and who surrounds himself with sycophants, and makes war where he can find it by shading the truth, gets elected, not once, but two times as leader of the free world.
What is really needed is a new emphasis in our schools on reading. No not how many books I read contests (how do you know the books were really read?), but reading and writing about what is read. Trouble is, a lot of our modern teachers are reading challenged themselves. They just never had the time. Sorry about that last one. That may have been an overstatement. But I watched a young teacher on a quiz show recently. She didn’t know where the Hamptons were, among other things. Apparently she never read “The Great Gatsby.”