Downbeat

As research, I’ve been following a GoogleNews search for “newspapers” and this weekend alone was revealing as I heard a chorus of newspaper people singing in harmony but in a minor key: defensive, depressed, desperate, and sometimes downright dizzy. A sampling:

Jon Talton in the Seattle Times echoes Jack Shafer in Slate (or is it Salon?) to remind us that out of all our sturm and drang about journos’ jobs it’s not often that empathy emerges about many other jobs and workers suffering now. Said Shafer:

The misery of a laid-off or bought-out journalist isn’t greater than that of a sacked bond trader, a RIF-ed clerk, or a fired autoworker. The only reason we’re so well-informed about journalists’ suffering is they have easy access to a megaphone. The underlying cause of their grief can be traced to the same force that has destroyed other professions and industries: digital technology….

Before we get too weepy about lost journalistic jobs and folded publications, let’s ask how often reporters lamented the decline of other industries, products, and services swamped by Rossetto’s digital typhoon.

Talton recalls cavalierly writing about the fate of steelworkers overtaken by technology and globalization:

Twenty years ago, no doubt with the hubris of youth, I wrote an analysis of the U.S. steel industry’s troubles. The next day, I got a call from one of some 600,000 steelworkers who were about to lose their jobs in that wrenching restructuring. The jobs were largely replaced with those that paid less, offering fewer benefits and no security.

“You people in the press would write differently if it was happening to you,” he said. “Someday you’ll get yours.”

If he’s still around, this reader and countless others sharing the same sentiments can take comfort. We’ve gotten ours….

Like the 1970s steel industry, much of the newspaper world is a victim of self-inflicted wounds. Monopolies and cartels tend to commit suicide, partly because they become complacent, partly because they grow an inward-looking groupthink. Like Big Steel, newspapers in the 1990s failed to aggressively address the rise of low-cost competitors and much of the industry failed to invest for the future.

In Chapel Hill, newspaper editor Mark Schultz recounts all the wonderful things his paper does, arguing for its value.

And that’s why I hope we’ll survive another year, and for years after that.

We have more stories to tell.

And it’s important.

In Bay City, editor John Hiner recounts the changes he’s making to keep his head and his paper above water.

Some industry observers say the clock is ticking on printed newspapers; some go so far as to say that print journalism as a whole is a dying profession. The more charitable pundits say the industry is in transition, to a lower-cost model that bolsters a smaller print product with broad use of the Internet.

As someone riding the horns of the bull, I’ll tell you that my reactions are frustration and determination….

I’m not delusional. I’ve been newspapering since 1982, and this is as tough as I’ve ever seen it. But I also know that a local paper’s chances of surviving and thriving are no stronger than the relationship it has with its readers.

In Wichita Falls, Joe Brown frets about Detroit’s papers dropping a few days’ home delivery, recalling when his paper dropped its afternoon paper and readers dropped the morning paper, too.

In Denver, op-ed writer Jason Saltzman complains about Scripps threatening to abandon its paper there, putting it up for sale, like 30 others according to the Financial Times (and there are no buyers). “Newspapers,” he declares, “are too important to be abandoned like a soap factory.”

In Knoxville, another Scripps town, Jack McElroy, editor of the Knoxville News, argues that everything’s fine.

The question is inevitable: Are you guys going out of business?

The answer is unequivocal: No!….

We plan to be part of Knoxville for a long, long time to come.

The editors doth protest a lot. They talk a lot about justifying cutbacks at their papers. But they talk less about reinventing those papers.

In Philadelphia, besieged Inquirer and News publisher Brian Tierney tries to serve faith and apple pie. He says that wherever he goes in the city, “They’re also asking a question: Are our papers going to make it?”

Big challenges lie ahead, and a slowing economy makes it undeniably tougher. But The Inquirer has been around for 180 years, and we’re committed to making certain it’s around for 180 years more.

So, the next time I see you at a game, at Mass, or at a concert, please keep telling me what we’re doing well – and what we can do better. And please remember the critical role these newspapers play in our community.

At 51, I’ve been in other businesses that were just as tough as this one. But none of them seemed quite as important. And that’s why I’m proud of this great, historic endeavor. Our local owners know it’s more than a business; it’s a public trust.

He acknowledges tough times but says the paper and its site are doing fine. What he doesn’t talk about is the problem facing too many like him: debt service.

Jason Whitlock in the Kansas City Star also raises the flag, saying that newspapers are vital to democracy.

And now I’m scared.

The conventional wisdom is that newspapers are dying. We’re slashing employees, young people allegedly ignore us and what we report and say somehow matters less. A major newspaper in New York recently eliminated the sports columnist position. The two newspapers in Detroit announced last week they’re soon only going to offer home delivery three days a week.

We’re all hurting in this economy. The pain we feel at The Star when our valued colleagues are let go is no different from the pain you feel when a friend or loved one is laid off at Sprint, Hallmark or Ford.

But I want you to consider something when you think about the future of newspapers:

You can’t have a democracy without us. If newspapers are dying, so is our system of government.

Like others here, he assumes that the fate of newspapers is the fate of journalism and thus of democracy. Not necessarily so.

This same attitude leads Joel Brinkley, a Stanford journalism prof, to resurrect a notion that I thought was long dead and deservedly buried – that papers should all agree to cut off the public from their content so they’d be forced to pay for it (as if they still had no other choices):

Now, here’s my idea: The newspaper industry should ask the Justice Department for an antitrust exemption that would allow publishers to collaborate on a decision to begin charging for their Web sites. No paper would have to charge, and each paper could determine its own price. But if most papers in a region – San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, for example – began charging for Web access at more or less the same time, many readers would likely subscribe.

Georgie Anne Geyer says it’s downright unpatriotic not to buy papers.

My quarrel with my friends who brag about reading news on the Internet is that they are taking an active step in the formation of a country without a civic conscience. Only newspapers can provide this, with their multitalented staffs and with the scope of their reporting. Without them, welcome to a truly depressing future – and please, don’t let anyone tell you it had to be.

Now the internet is the enemy of democracy.

Meanwhile, at Slashdot, inspired by James Surowiecki’s New Yorker summary of the state of papers, they’re debating whether papers are doomed. No conclusion there. There never is.

All this in just one weekend.

And then comes Monday and David Carr’s media column goes online at NYTimes.com and he tells the wonder of a 10k circulation community paper in New Jersey that’s succeeding even as it completely shuns the web. So the only innovation I’ve read in all these links is about avoiding innovation. Uh-oh, I can here Geyer cackling.

So what do we take away from all this? A profound vision of confusion, that’s what.

: LATER: But then there’s John Robinson, on of the daring innovators in an industry that needs more of them, writing at his News-Record.com about why he’s staying.

Sometimes I think that it must have been fun to be an editor when newspapers were the only game in town and all you had to do to make a lot of money was to open the doors for business. But I suspect it wasn’t fun so much as it was just easy.

The world has flipped that on its head. Riding the wave of cultural, technological and financial sea change isn’t easy, but it is certainly fun. It is a wonderful time to be in journalism. With all the tools available, a journalist can do more now and reach more people than he ever could. The challenge now is to take full advantage of that.

How can we use crowdsourcing? Social networks? How, in this time of downsizing, can we expand our Web sites, our mobile offerings, our niche publications and maintain a robust and vital newspaper? How can we devote the time to tough-minded investigative and activist journalism? How can we help our community by nurturing citizen journalism efforts and local journalism start-ups? What should we be doing with video and audio, which aren’t yet running through our veins the way ink does?

Now THAT’s the spirit.

  • http://www.newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com Martin Langeveld

    That paper cited by Carr is a weekly. For a while I was a board member of the National Newspaper Association, the “other” organization, which represents mostly weeklies. I don’t know that anyone has done a survey, but a good fraction of those papers don’t publish their news online, using the same “why would I give it away free” philosophy. In general, the NAA’s members still claim to be doing well. I posted about this a while back: http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/2008/09/somewhere-they-are-still-reading.html . The advantages these papers have is that being small, they’re very much in touch with their communities, and they can innovate on a dime, if they really have to, compared with the big papers where change is often hampered by size, inertia and bureaucracy.

  • http://johnwelsh.wordpress.com John Welsh

    As a B2B editor, I was always suprised that journalists could write about a business sector that was under pressure from the economy or the web and not see the connection to the health of their own title. Indeed, they would often write that some profession was hopeless at embracing the web though be hesitant to write for their own magazine’s website. There was only so much lateral thinking you could do before cutbacks did it for you.

  • Dance on their graves, Elf-Man

    I’m reminded of Warren Beatty’s invitation to Pauline Kael. Where’s your re-invented newspaper, Jeff?

    Oh.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Wait…

  • http://twitter.com/lebigz Le Big Z

    just a little note on the side: when reading your articles in the reader, there are massive problems with where the quotes start and where they end.. you will recognize it if you try e.g. this one in google reader.
    (no problem to go on your site & give you a little more ad $, but just so you know..)

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