Old News? With changing media, print news on last leg

By Vincent Stigliani 2010

Right now, you are more than likely holding history. By that, I don’t mean this article specifically; I am talking about the print newspaper which you are holding. This is because, if recent times are any indication of the future, print newspaper will be a thing of the past.

Almost every day there is a story about a newspaper making massive budget and employee cuts. In recent months, it has not been uncommon to see a news outlet completely overhaul their print newspaper, moving entirely to other forms of technology. The list of such instances goes on, but two notable cases are The Capital Times and The Christian Science Monitor.

The Capitol Times, a Madison, Wis., newspaper with a circulation around 20,000, announced last April that it would cease to publish a daily edition and move entirely Internet-based. This was one of the first major newspapers of its stature to do so.

The renowned Christian Science Monitor, which was a daily publication that has a circulation of around 56,000, also announced last year that as of April of 2009, it would end its daily publication. The 100-year-old international paper will print a weekly edition, but its primary form will be online.

Undoubtedly, the Internet is the main culprit in the downfall of print news. “Newspapers have devalued themselves by giving away their basic commodity — information — for free online, so it’s hard to see how a paid print version can sustain itself on a daily basis for the long-term,” Director of Communication and Marketing and former Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier Editor Saul Shapiro said.

“We’re seeing news operations all over the country, print and broadcast, cutting back on their operations because of the economy and more fully utilizing the Web,” Assistant Professor in Communication Arts at Wartburg Cliff Brockman said. “As a local example, the Courier recently eliminated its Saturday edition and has beefed up its Web site. It now directs its readers to its Web site for the latest Friday night sports scores and breaking news.”

An analogous situation is what happened with Napster upon its release. The free computer program essentially allowed the free download of all music. When people became aware of this program, they stopped buying CD’s, for they could get the same product for free from Napster.

The Internet makes every single news story covered in papers available 10 times over, so readers have no incentive to buy a newspaper when they can get the same information, if not better, for free.

“It’s absolutely ludicrous for newspapers to continue to give away their best content for free on the Internet. Newspaper content on the Internet should be basic community news — calendars, sports scores, press releases, public documents, etc. — that isn’t value-added. Content produced by reporters has value, and it should be used to generate revenues,” Shapiro said.

The thought of an entirely online-based news outlet scares many journalists. “Basically, the newspaper will continue to migrate online and the conventions of the platform—revenue generation rather than social responsibility—will affect why we gather news. As such, the media will become less of a watchdog and accountability will suffer,” Director of Iowa State’s Greenlee School of Journalism Michael Bugeja said.

Although the future for newspapers appears rather grim, there are many proposed solutions to end this downward spin. One of these options is a fundamental shift in what newspapers cover. For many newspapers today, much of the news consists of national and world news. If the smaller, more local newspapers are to stay in business, they must increase the amount of local news.

“Those who emphasized local news are still largely in business,” Bugeja said. “People still need to know what is happening in their communities.” When smaller newspapers attempt to cover larger-scale events, they are bound to lose readers.

With the Internet and large media outlets covering these same stories, readers are naturally inclined to go to these sources, where the information is free and oftentimes more in-depth.

On the other hand, if the smaller publications make more of a point to cover local news, readers are more likely to subscribe to and read the paper because it is providing news that is not provided by the larger outlets.

Many times, local news is much more meaningful and personal for the readers than national and international news is.

Another option for failing newspapers is changing how news is investigated and presented. One way for a paper to stand out from other publications is by providing unique, in-depth stories that are not being covered by every other paper.

A wonderful example of this strategy is the Des Moines Register’s feature on education systems around the world. In one edition, the Register sent reporters to Finland, where standardized test scores are notoriously high. These reporters spent time in the schools, interviewed teachers and directors and talked to the students. They then wrote a comprehensive piece on the system, comparing it to America’s.

These stories were accompanied by graphs and statistics about test scores worldwide. This is an example of how a paper can separate itself from other papers and draw in readers.
One of the major British newspapers, The Inquirer, has defied the laws of journalism in how it covers its news. During the 2004 United States elections, when it simply reported the results, circulation fell. This information could be found easily and much more timely online.

The next day, The Inquirer decided to change how it covered the elections, and this time it included analyses and interpretations of the election and sales increased by 15 percent. When covering the resignation of a mayor, the paper focusing the implications for the community would be an example of this style of reporting.

This goes against the conventional practice of journalism because it would require the journalists to include their own thoughts and analyses rather than only presenting the data. This method could give newspapers originality when they all cover the same event.

This practice is not a new idea. “Newspapers became a major part of our culture in the mid-19th century starting out as political party mouthpieces, although the founding fathers also had used newspapers to drive the dialogue (often nasty, even by today’s standards) to shape the foundation of this republic,” Shapiro said. “It wasn’t until the 20th century that newspapers became interested in being ‘objective’ because they wanted to build a wider audience and also, most importantly, keep from alienating advertisers by simply restating a political party perspective.”

There are strong reservations about this technique, however. “Journalists need to tell the community how certain decisions will affect it.

When you provide that type of immediacy, it’s compelling, but you also have to have the staff and the insights to pull it off,” Shapiro said. “On the other hand, you have to be wary of letting partisan political perspectives color any analysis. You’re seeing that play out in the blogs. It’s also driving cable TV — Fox on the right, MSNBC on the left — and radio — NPR on the left, conservative talk shows on the right.”

Perhaps the most promising future for journalism involves mobile journalists— commonly referred to as Mojos.

Mojos are journalists who write their stories directly from where they are happening with the aid of cameras, laptops and wireless Internet.

Because these journalists report onsite, they are able to constantly update their stories and provide the freshest, most accurate news.

However, some critics find office collaboration and discussion is very beneficial, and also this practice will cut out editorial oversight.

Although the future may seem grim, there are still young people interested and active in journalism, and journalistic skills are still very important. “Major media outlets have forgotten their reasons for being, catering more to Wall Street than to Main Street. What hasn’t changed is the zeal of students who want to do journalism for all the right reasons—transparency, disclosure and service to the community,” Bugeja said. “Enrollment has remained steady or is rising in some areas. The reason is that journalism uses the same technology that students use as consumers across academic disciplines, so we have an obligation to teach non-majors how to use these powerful gadgets with community, service and ethics utmost in mind.”

Regardless of what form it comes in, the importance of journalism will always remain.

“All I have is the belief that without responsible journalism, practiced in the public interest, democracy cannot survive,” Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism professor Joan Konner said. “There are and will be good independent journalists finding a way of getting important stories out—in books, in magazines, in newsletters, on the Web, if not in the business model of today’s daily newspapers.”

No matter what form journalism evolves into, one must hope that reliable, thoughtful, relevant news continues with it.

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