May my local newspaper rest in peace…

April 1, 2010

(blogger’s note: while this deals with a local issue, it has implications in communities all over the U.S.)

As far as I am concerned my local newspaper, the Redding Record Searchlight, has all but died now that I read it will move its copy editing and layout functions from the town it is supposed to be located in, Redding, Ca., to Corpus Christi, Tex.

It had outsourced some of its advertising design and production work to India some time ago.

What this means is that essentially the newspaper is no longer a product of the local community and that important news decisions will be made elsewhere, and if you buy the paper or advertise in it you will be helping the economy of Corpus Christi to an extent and maybe the bottom line of media conglomerate E.W. Scripps of Cincinnati, Ohio, but not your local community as a whole, or at least not as much so as in the past. And if you continue to support the outsourced product you will probably only be hastening its demise since, well, who is going to be interested in it? Okay, that was kind of like the Yogi Berra joke, nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded, but what I mean is that while some people might subscribe or advertise out of habit, the broader public will lose interest — more than it already has.

(Maybe a boycott by readers and advertisers would force a move back to a locally-run newspaper.)

And as a blogger close to the operation wrote, copy editors from so far away will not know anything about local place names and peculiarities and history (there will be no institutional memory) so it will be impossible to catch errors and to make sure what is presented is relevant to the local area and that it is accurate and gives the local perspective.

Once you lose control of the copy editing and the layout, you lose control of your newspaper, even if you still do the local reporting and supposedly make decisions on local news coverage.

I know this. I went through it. I was in charge of putting out a weekly newspaper in the Sacramento area that was published by an area daily newspaper. I was essentially a one-man staff — although I had some help from time to time. But to relieve me of some of the work and to supposedly make things more efficient, for a time, most or all of the copy editing and layout was handed over to the daily’s news desk.

Well, that was a disaster. The editors did not have any knowledge or interest in the area I was covering — it was just a mechanical job to them.

It got even worse — and this, maybe was partly my fault.

The big news story in the community I covered was an effort to incorporate and make it an official city with its own government, rather than just a suburb in the unincorporated part of Sacramento County. I did a lot of coverage on that, to include on-the-spot coverage of a California Supreme Court hearing on the issue that was held in Los Angeles (strangely enough). The high court took the matter under advisement and it was not known for sure when it would hand down an opinion. As it happened, I was on vacation in Mexico, of all places, when the news came down. The incorporation effort was given the green light by the high court. The guy that was given the task of putting out my newspaper while I was gone (a reporter on the daily that published my weekly) put the story on the bottom of the front page. It was the biggest story my paper ever had. Okay, maybe partly my fault since I was on vacation, but the point is, you don’t make the decisions on your own newspaper you lose it.

As far as I am concerned, my hometown newspaper is no longer a responsible member of the community. It was one in the past.

While the newspaper, to its credit, has tried to maintain local covererage for the past several years, its editorial (news) department has been gutted and the people who run it nowadays have no institutional memory and just don’t seem to have a feel for the community and in fact have no real control over the newspaper. The control is in a far off corporate board room where no doubt the only concern is the bottom line and has nothing at all to do with journalism. Most, or at least too many, of those who actually make the money decisions, the investment decisions, on newspapers these days have no background in news. They are bean counters or MBA types who just see newspapers as another business.

Newspapers have always been a unique business. They have not always been good. In fact, the newspaper industry’s history is one of propaganda pamphlets, and one-sided rants of various kinds, and of sensationalism.

But there was a certain golden age, I think, when there were a lot of responsible newspapers that provided the public with both the information they wanted and the information they needed in a democracy, along with a good dose of human interest and entertainment and opinion. They were part of the literature of the American culture (well, so were the bad ones).

But newspapers are dying,  partly out of business greed and partly out of the so-called advance in technology and partly because the public education system gave up on teaching English some time ago.

I have mixed feelings about dropping my subscription to my local newspaper because as bad as it is, it still is the only game in town for local news.

You would think that some enterprising business people would see the need for local news and start up their own paper. But apparently newspapers are not seen as a viable business model these days. And in my experience most business people don’t get the idea of putting out a newspaper that emphasizes objective reporting and factual information over business puffery masquerading as news (like infomercials on TV).

In fact, on some (some) of the newspapers I worked for, the business types who ran them seemed to think the local newspaper’s role was to withhold (embarrassing or inconvenient) news rather than report it.

It might be only wishful thinking on my part, but perhaps some day in the future people will look around and wonder what happened to the local news (or all news) and a real newspaper might come back — one actually printed on paper — something you could hold in your hands and read, put down, and check it again and even save for the record.

It seems strange that while newspapers are already seen as a relic of the past by many they still seem to be the symbol of news. They are often used in graphics on broadcast news and are often mentioned in broadcast stories and internet sites often give a rundown of the day’s top newspaper stories.

And as far as I know, in all levels of news, local, state, nation and world, newspapers are still the backbone or the foundation of news reporting from which most of the other forms of media feed.

With the death of newspapers I think may come the death of news as we have known it.

I don’t have enough time now or even skill, perhaps, to explain this, but covering and reporting news in the newspaper fashion, with on-the-spot reporters, whose job it is to objectively interpret what they hear and see, assisted by editors who can work raw reporting into shape and catch errors and make judgments on coverage emphasis (and yes this is all subjective — what other way would there be?) is far different than internet I reports from amateurs (although they are great for immediate info) and bloggers who want to push and agenda.

It may be that the ever-dwindling responsible newspapers can successfully move their old-fashioned paper editions to the internet and essentially get the same job done, but it just does not seem the same to me.

And I know there are some areas in the nation where actual newspapers are still popular and do quite well. I just don’t live there.

P.s.

My local newspaper often uses the fact that its advertising has fallen off drastically as an excuse for the cutbacks and outsourcing. I wonder if the powers that be ever get the fact that their readership has fallen off in large part because they no longer offer much to the reader, the person those advertisers are trying to reach.

Advertisements