Monday, January 14, 2013

In defense of newspapers and print

Your daily newspaper can never be a niche product, but nobody responds well to an "eat-your-broccoli-it's-good-for-you" kind of pitch.

Considering what I'm doing now it might seem funny that I'm defending newspapers, but I spent 30 years in the business and I care about their survival for a number of reasons. I don't have any solutions, just a few observations.

It's no secret the business is in trouble. Recently, 60 Minutes had a story about the New Orleans Times-Picayune, one of the nation's oldest papers, cutting back publication. The community was outraged and upset. There was talk about a community-based rescue. Strategies for moving content online were mentioned (of course). But no one saw things going back to where they were.

In the last few days, there have been stories about The New York Times slashing salaries, offering early retirement packages, possibly laying off staff. When The New York Times is cutting back, it's not just the canary in the coal mine anymore.

What is happening? The answer is simple: for a lot of newspapers, especially big city metros, readership and advertising revenue are going down fast. Local papers have not been spared the pinch either.

A question for all you middle-aged and older newspaper readers. Do any of your kids take the paper? If they don't, where do they get their news? I'm willing to guess a lot of them get it from their smart phones or tablets. Question No. 2: How well-informed are they?

I don't write for a newspaper anymore, I have this blog, which is the online resurrection of a weekly column I wrote for the Post Register for 12 or 13 years, and it's doing moderately well.

My column was popular because it was made up of brief items rendered in a conversational tone. I did plenty of longer stories, but that column seems to be what people remember most.

I started the blog because I missed the connection with the community my writing gave me, and to make a little money (it's not a big bucks proposition.) As much as I enjoy getting a scoop, I don't regard myself as serious competition to the paper. Perhaps they feel undermined by me. I can't say I blame them. Newspapers are in a special bind.

On one hand it's a business, and we all know businesses have to make a profit. When your costs are going up and your revenues are going down, it's a tough proposition. In a very short time, Craigslist kicked the pins out from under newspapers' classified business. In a lot of ways Craigslist is a garbage dump, but it has its uses and most importantly it's free. How do you compete with free?

Cliched as it sounds, freedom isn't free and neither is a free press. Newspapers, and the watchdog journalism they consistently provide, are essential to a functioning democracy. Our Declaration of Independence says governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. But if the governed are underinformed or misinformed, what is their consent really worth, and how susceptible are they to manipulation?

I don't think widespread public ignorance is exclusive to the Internet age. Not as many Idahoans can name their congressional representatives as can name all the members of the Kardashian family, but I suspect 50 years ago people were more preoccupied with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton than they were with House Speaker Sam Rayburn.

With regard to news online, there are some good national sources. There are lots of local online sources as well, but for the most part it's still the newspaper that breaks the big news.

People always say they want more "good news." I confess I wrote a lot of feature stories when I was at the paper because I'm at heart a people pleaser. It made me a bit of a freak. By and large, journalism is a profession filled with people who enjoy talking to each other more than they enjoy talking to you. Their self-importance can be off-putting.

I was never all that keen on the "truth to power" stuff, and was kind of a wreck anytime I knew was likely to upset people. Most of my colleagues were tougher in that respect, or at least they seemed that way. Nevertheless, I think I added something, because I believe a newspaper ought to reflect the community it serves, the good and the bad.

A few years ago, Idaho Falls had a weekly that specialized in warm, fuzzy stories. It competed with the daily paper for adversing dollars. The daily had an arm tied behind its back. The weekly didn't have to cover car wrecks, homicides, sex offenders, abuses of power, etc. Nor for that matter do Idaho Falls Magazine or BizMojo Idaho. But if the editors at the Post Register were to decide to ignore stuff like that in favor of feel-good stories, the paper's credibility would be nil.

Newspapers perform a necessary and often thankless function. On top of that they are expected to make money, not just to pay for their production but ideally to pay the people who produce the content that makes them essential.

Can anyone convince an increasingly distracted population they are necessary to its well being? Even if you are essential, how do you close the sale? I don't think it's going an easy challenge to meet, but for society's sake I'm hoping newspapers can.