I’ll Miss Newspapers When They Slip Away
Newsrooms have gone from trimming fat to splintering bone.
Posted Oct 21, 2011
A recent Pew Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism study found two out of three people surveyed feel that - no matter what their own reading habits - the demise of their local newspaper would seriously harm their ability to get local news.
That serious harm has become a serious possibility. Even if newspapers don't disappear from the community entirely, many are being gutted of the very skills that make them essential.
A once-conceptual question has become literal: What will a community be like without a real newspaper? The equally legitimate follow-up is: if not a newspaper ... what?
After all is positioned and explained; after all the numbers are rationalized; after all the silver linings are sewn in, the malady of newspapers comes down to a simple diagnosis: print revenue is declining faster than on-line revenue is growing.
The hopeful assumption was that, newspapers' powerful community identity and news-gathering infrastructure, the trend lines would eventually cross. On-line revenues would grow to lead a transformation from the term "newspaper" to the more confident description I saw recently: "platform-agnostic providers of community information."
The problem is that the platforms have become crowded with competitors - all trying to nudge the others off the edge. Even though newspapers have the dominant local Web site in most major local markets, that competition has grounded the expectation they could ride their local might to the digital high-ground.
Evidence of the erosion of cash flow and confidence comes in the most troublesome cloud on newspaper's future. The industry is hemorrhaging the newsroom talent that stands between newspapers and the undisciplined, ungoverned wilds of the Web.
Newsrooms across the country have gone from trimming fat to splintering bone. Do more with less inevitably yields to do less with less, and not as well. Papers are downsizing the experience, creativity, standards and - on their best days - pursuit of truth that form the very marrow of the best newsrooms.
When you lose the mass to cover a community, and the beat expertise to understand how it works, the product risk is loss of relevance - wire copy, broken up by puff pieces, wrapped in ads. The newest wave of budget desperation actually has copy desks being consolidated in cities hundreds of miles away; where copy editors do their work oblivious to the rhythms of the communities their skills are intended to serve.
Estimates are that newsrooms in 2010 were 30 percent smaller than in 2,000. A 2011 Federal Communications Report says that the decline in staffing has left many papers unable to do the watchdog reporting that promotes institutional accountability - particularly local government. The proliferation of cable and digital media outlets, the report says, simply doesn't provide the reporting muscle to carry the load.
I'm beginning to think of the angst over the decline of newspapers is similar to the problem of global warming. As one argument goes, we've already damaged the atmosphere to the extent that warming will continue no matter what we do. So the issue is not how to stop it. It's how to adapt to it.
But adapt to what? All the places we can go on the Web that simply reinforce what we already believe? All the places where facts aren't checked because facts aren't the point?
Maybe readers will finally become willing to pay for the quality of a newspaper's Web site. Maybe newspapers will find a way to charge for all that content that finds its way to the sites of others. Maybe the economy will come back enough to encourage advertisers and replenish budgets.
I hope so on all counts. But I see little evidence for optimism.
Marshall McLuhan once said that "People don't actually read newspapers. They step into them every morning like a hot bath." I am one of those people. But I fear that sound I hear is the bathwater circling the drain.
Dr. Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Medical College, Cornell University, and author Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family (Rodale, May 2011). Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com