Sunday, March 1, 2009

Can We Save Our Newspapers?

After 150 years in business, the Rocky Mountain News last week said its sad goodbye.

After nearly 150 years in business, the Rocky Mountain News published its final edition Friday, the victim of a bad economy and the Internet generation.

The final front-page headline simply says: "Goodbye, Colorado."

The Rocky Mountain News was the latest victim in an era of shutdowns, layoffs and cutbacks plaguing the newspaper industry.

"It's in a free fall and nobody knows where the bottom is. It's kind of like water in the toilet swirling around and nobody knows what's left when you're done flushing,"

Yes, many of the newspapers are in deep trouble. But what, if anything can we (or should we) do to save them?

As a boy, I used to look forward to the paper boy leaving the evening paper on my porch after coming home from school. So many things have changed since then. Most evening papers have disappeared and paper boys have been replaced by adults getting up in the pre-dawn hours to toss hundreds of rolled up newspapers out of their cars and onto front yards. People complained about having to go out into the cold and retrieving a sometimes soaked newspaper, but that was progress we were told.

Much later, I discovered that the paper could be read at my computer screen. Some people say they hate having to read a newspaper on a computer screen. I actually prefer it. And besides not having to pay for a subscription, I really liked the idea of not having a pile of used newspapers to have to deal with. So while I couldn’t live without reading the newspapers each morning at my computer, even if I were offered a free subscription to get the printed copies of those same papers, I would turn it down!

More and more newspaper readers are finding that getting the print versions of their favorite papers is an offer that they can refuse. But since they are not getting enough revenue from the online ads they run, the newspapers are in dire financial straits.

It’s logical to at least ask whether newspapers are worth saving. Do they provide something not available elsewhere? I say absolutely yes! Most newspapers provide news in far more quality and quantity than just about any TV and radio newscast does. But the vital question is whether enough people really care about news for this to matter.

Many people primarily get their news from TV. But TV news is a far cry from the pioneering days of Edward R. Murrow when news was considered a public service and not a vehicle for making money. Now TV news is designed first and foremost around higher ratings which makes for more incoming advertising revenues. While there are a few non-commercial news outlets like PBS and the BBC that buck this trend, most TV viewers like a newscast that is high on features and fluff without too much hard news.

Indeed many local stations primarily promote their newscasts based on their weather capabilities, e.g. “Storm Team”, “Severe Weather Team” or even their sportscasts with local team highlights. It has been said that much of the audience for local TV news has been lost because of other outlets for weather and sports like The Weather Channel and ESPN.

While we are at it, do most people really buy newspapers to read the news? I am amazed to see large stacks of the Sunday paper on display in supermarkets on Saturday afternoon! And lots of people are buying them then. What up to date news or even sports results can possibly be there? If you examine these early editions, they consist of predominantly feature articles with little or no real news.

So if what newspapers do that is better than other media outlets, presenting the news, isn’t so important to enough people, maybe this is a major reason why newspapers are dying!

There are many interesting viewpoints on how (or even if) the newspaper industry can be saved. The interested reader can check out this New York Times blog article
Battle Plans for Newspapers to read about some of them.

The ideas to save newspapers basically fall into two categories:

1. Stay as a for-profit company but come up with ways to generate more revenue to keep the doors open.

2. Become a non-profit entity supported by donations and endowments under the thinking that a newspaper is a necessary public resource that belongs to everybody.

If newspapers were able to successfully charge enough for their online content either by subscriptions or by the article to stay afloat as advocated by the Time article
How to Save Your Newspaper, the problem could be solved. Perhaps this may be tried again by some newspapers as a last ditch effort to keep from going under. Sites like have successfully charged for access to premium “Insider” articles. But in general, while Internet users expect to pay their service providers for access to the Web, most of these same people feel that they have a right to free content from newspapers. Writers like Michael Kinsley in his op-ed article You Can't Sell News by the Slice feel that charging for content is an exercise in futility.

Another possibility that hasn’t been explored is to relax the restrictions on joint ownership of a newspaper and TV station in the same major media market as advocated
here. In addition to consolidating their news gathering and reporting operations, the TV part of the business can use its profits to keep the newspaper part viable. While the FCC has OK’d some joint ownership, the ruling is so narrow that the restrictions effectively prevent mergers like this in major media markets.

Supporting the idea of endowments for newspapers is this article
Newspapers 2.0.

As long as newspapers remain for-profit enterprises, they will find no refuge from their financial problems. The advertising revenues that newspaper Web sites generate are not enough to sustain robust news coverage. Though The New York Times Web site attracted 20 million unique users in October, Web-driven revenues support only an estimated 20 percent of the paper's current staff.

So how will this all turn out? It’s hard to say for sure. Perhaps technological progress will eventually finish newspapers for good — or it may be an unexpected way to save them. Ultimately, it comes down to whether enough of us believe in the worth of newspapers like Thomas Jefferson who in 1787 said:

"And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter."

But it begs the rhetorical question: Would Tom have felt the same way if other media such as TV and the Internet had existed in his day?

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