By Tom Still
MADISON – It’s the ideal hand-held communications tool for the 21st century: It’s portable, carries easily segmented global, national and local news, is updated regularly by professionals dedicated to filtering and editing mounds of information, and requires no external power source other than natural or room lighting.
It’s called a newspaper. So why does a product that can be described in such trendy terms seem like… well, yesterday’s news?
For reasons that range from recession to the rise of the Internet to the changing reading habits of Americans, general-circulation newspapers are caught in a survival crisis like none since the Depression. While many people wouldn’t notice or even care if their local paper fades away, a democratic society should pay attention.
Nationally and in Wisconsin, newspapers are dealing with double-digit declines in earnings, often as much as 40 percent. Classified advertising, especially employment ads, have dropped steadily for years due to competition from the Internet. The recession has now cut deeply into display ads. Newspaper circulation nationally is down 14 percent since 1970, although the population grew by about 50 percent over the same period. That means the “penetration rate,” a measure of newspaper-reading households in a given circulation area, has fallen from an average of 30 percent to 17 percent.
From a business standpoint, some newspaper companies brought on these problems by their own actions – and inactions. Some publically owned newspaper chains failed to reinvest or were slow to embrace trends such as newsroom convergence, which is the notion of using other mediums (broadcast and Internet) to deliver news and information. Not unlike the Big Three automakers in Detroit, many newspapers didn’t work to retain the brand loyalty of the next generation. Industry-wide programs such as “Newspapers in Education,” which delivered free newspapers to schools as a teaching tool, were usually poorly funded afterthoughts. Newspapers earn the bulk of their revenues through advertising – yet they tend to market themselves poorly, if at all. And, yes, some newspaper editors lost touch with their own communities.
Most newspapers have reacted by cutting news space, newsroom staffs or both. That may be the only short-term option, particularly for publically traded newspapers worried about debt loads and the next quarterly report, but the long-term strategy should be the opposite: Deliver high-quality news and information, regardless of the medium.
The age of 24-hour news can be both an enemy and a friend to newspapers. It’s a foe because it buries the notion that a morning newspaper thumped on your doorstep contains the latest news. But it can be a friend for those newspapers (more accurately, newsrooms) that recognize they can offer depth, perspective and double-checked facts that broadcast news usually cannot. Newspaper newsrooms are filled with reporters and editors who know how to sort through rumor, spin and outright misinformation. Those same newsrooms have a collective institutional memory that can’t be found elsewhere in most communities.
What’s wrong with getting your news from Internet sites that have nothing to do with traditional newspapers? Well-read sites include MSNBC, Yahoo News, CNN and AOL News. That’s fine if your goals are immediacy, downloading news to a hand-held device and “personalizing” the news you read by eliminating that which you consider irrelevant.
But don’t expect Yahoo or AOL to cover the local school board meeting, to track problems at the city water utility or even write about Junior’s big game against Rydell High. Don’t expect them to smell a rat in your state Capitol, review the amateur theater production or recognize a big community story in the making. That’s not what national news sites do well – and probably never will.
Newspapers need to physically reinvent themselves, from how they are delivered to how they appeal to today’s fragmented markets. But they cannot and should not reinvent their core role in society, which is providing a base of shared information that makes democracy and civic discourse go better. If that happens, the so-called death of news will spell the death of much more.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.