A funny thing happened in recent days: People started to acknowledge that newspapers matter. With its cover story, “How To Save Your Newspaper,” Time magazine is only the latest to offer advice. In a rush of magazine, newspaper and online commentaries, it was variously recommended that newspapers (a) charge for online content, (b) focus on content for their Web sites, (c) transform themselves into non-profits, or (d) seek a government bailout.
Slate, the online magazine, suggested – tongue in cheek – that newspapers seek the tax benefits available to religious organizations. (That would be interesting.)
Even Web sites with a history of scorning the evil mainstream media were voicing support. It was OK, it turns out, to bang away at the failings of old media so long as the original reporting from those very same dinosaurs provided the source material for your latest blog.
Let’s consider, for a second, what newspapers do every day.
If you opened The Press Democrat one day last week, you learned some bad news (detailed reporting on how budget cuts would affect local services) and some good news (the Obama administration has shelved plans for oil drilling along the Sonoma County coast).
You received an inside look at the world-famous cyclists who will race through the streets of Santa Rosa later today. And you read the profile and saw the photos of a young winemaker who is leading a local revolution in grape production.
Of course, there were countless other features that day – news reports, commentaries, obituaries, reviews, photos, videos, charts, blogs and so much more. From the letters to the editor to the business news, from comics to grocery ads, newspapers and their Web sites serve up an astonishing mix of information and entertainment.
Newspapers – and here’s the shameless promotion part – are how we learn about what’s going on in our hometowns and about how events will shape our lives and our livelihoods.
Just so you know, it takes 80 newsroom people to create the package of information and entertainment that comes to your front porch, your computer screen and your smart phone each and every day. And that’s not counting the folks who work in advertising, technical services, accounting, production, circulation and more.
I know what some of you are thinking. Newspapers make mistakes. Newspapers are too liberal, or too conservative. Newspapers are too serious, or not serious enough. Newspapers pay too much attention to celebrities and sports, except when they pay too little attention to celebrities and sports.
It’s all true.
When this column is posted online, some of you will add your rejoinders, testifying to all that’s wrong with newspapers and newspaper columnists. You should never be reluctant to criticize the newspaper when you think it deserves criticism.
You should know that newspaper companies are changing, but they aren’t going away. Every day, almost 200,000 people pick up this newspaper, and more than 50,000 people visit pressdemocrat.com. More people take advantage of information provided by newspaper companies than ever before.
The problem isn’t readership. The problem is a bad economy; the problem is that nobody has yet figured out how to share the costs of news gathering between print and online. Organizations of all kinds are still searching for an online business model that pays for quality content.
For better and worse, a lot of valuable information was made available at no cost on the Web, and people came to expect it – in the same way they would expect a free newspaper to continue to be free.
But some kinds of information can never be free because there are costs associated with producing that information. Newspapers hire skilled and experienced people to do this work.
So, over time, the future of newspaper companies will depend on people’s ability to recognize that some kinds of reporting can’t be given away.
Your favorite blogger may enrich your life in many ways, but he or she won’t be dispatching reporters to the war in Iraq, or to a City Hall near you, or to interview a world-class cyclist.
Newspapers were slow to recognize that technology was revolutionizing the ways that people receive information. (First, we were arrogant and dismissive. Later, we were in denial.)
But that’s over now. Newspapers know they need to work differently, embracing round-the-clock news coverage and the extraordinary power of technology to share information and convene communities of interest.
Your hometown newspaper isn’t likely to be perfect any time soon. In a changing economy, it may not be able to do everything you would like it to do.
But it will be there, providing a daily report on the place where you live.
After 40-some years in this business, I won’t be confused with an innocent bystander, but I think it’s OK if people occasionally recognize the unique role the newspaper plays in the life of their town.