By Tom Still

It’s the ideal hand-held communications tool for the 21st
century:  It’s portable, contains 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 is 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 include the Great Recession, the rise of
the Internet and the changing reading habits of Americans, general-circulation
newspapers have been in survival mode for a decade or more. However, the spate
of just-announced deals that feature media companies spinning off their
publishing arms may yet produce a promising future for newspapers – in
Wisconsin and nationally.

At first blush, those recent deals look very similar.
Journal Communications Inc. of Milwaukee and E.W. Scripps Co. in Cincinnati
will merge their broadcast operations while spinning off their newspapers into
a separate entity; The Gannett Company will create a new newspaper unit that will
include many Wisconsin newspapers while retaining its broadcast and digital
operations; and the Chicago-based Tribune Company will become a television
business while spinning out Tribune Publishing.

Those strategic separations follow other media companies –
from Rupert Murdoch’s empire to Time Warner Inc. – that have spun off their
print arms in recent years.

In large part, the deals are a reaction to investors who
have shown more appetite for broadcast assets than newspapers, which have
struggled to retain advertising revenues in many cities. The theory is that
separate broadcast entities will be “freed” in a market sense – and that stock
prices will rise accordingly.

Those deals also represent a fresh start for many newspapers
and print publications, especially for those that weathered the hard times
without accumulating debt while maintaining readership that values high-quality
news and other content, print and digital.

Full disclosure: I am a recovering newspaper editor and
reporter who spent years in the industry and who witnessed some of its business
mistakes. I also appreciate the value newspapers bring to democracy and
society, and suspect they will become stronger in time if released from the
expectations born of being tied to what is essentially an entertainment

From a business standpoint, many newspaper companies brought
on problems through 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 to deliver
news and information. Others failed to retain the brand loyalty of the next
generation. Still others missed the chance to market themselves effectively.

Most newspapers reacted to the financial crunch by cutting
news space, newsroom staffs or both. While that was an understandable
short-term option, the long-term strategy should now be the opposite: Deliver
high-quality news and information, regardless of the medium.

That’s why many on the print side of the spinoffs are
confident about forging ahead. Just as Wall Street perceives the new
broadcast-only companies will be liberated, those on the newspaper side of the
deals will also feel free to innovate.

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.

In Wisconsin, the fact that Milwaukee will remain the hub
for the new Journal Media Group – which will operate daily newspapers in 14
markets – is a plus. Gannett’s print properties in Wisconsin include daily
newspapers in 10 cities, including Green Bay and Appleton. Consolidations are
always possible, but the new structures represent an opportunity to enrich
content across delivery platforms.

Broadcast and online are tremendous sources 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 those sources 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 the
state Capitol, review the amateur theater production or recognize a big
community story in the making. As newspapers and newspaper companies change, local
content will remain king.