Newspapers: R.I.P.?

I am a newspaper man at heart, spending 10 years as a reporter for the largest newspaper here in Western Massachusetts. I immersed myself fully in that world of journalism for so long that even now, as a teacher, it is hard to shake off. When I visit a city, my eyes always scan for local newspapers — checking out layout design, headlines, and quality. I remember the days when newspapers were pulling in profits of 10 to 20 percent and riding a wave of cash.

Those days are long gone and I have mixed feelings.

I often feel as if large newspapers abused their roles in the communities — pushing through the personal agendas of publishers (as happened regularly with our newspaper, it seemed) — and ignoring all of the tell-tale signs that the digital revolution could spell the end of their role as arbiter of the news. It’s obvious that almost every publishing company ignored those signs, as every day brings more news of a newspaper on the brink of collapse or is gone forever. Just this morning, I read and heard about the plight of the paper in San Fransciso, and yesterday, it was about the fall of a newspaper down in Bridgeport, Connecticut. And our own regional newspaper, the one where I worked, is but a skeleton of itself — decimated by staffing cuts. Even today, I buy the more local newspaper and avoid the one where I worked. I just can’t stomach it.

But I don’t want to see newspapers fail.

So I read with interest the recent cover story by Walter Isaacson in Time Magazine, where he advocates a new model for web-based newspaper content. First, he notes that the push to offer free content on the web by newspapers was wrong and short-sighted, and established in the minds of readers that all news should always be free. If there is no pay, then newspapers can’t hire investigative reporters and other quality journalists. There is room for blogging journalists in the world, but we also need full-time dogged reporters and we can’t expect them to work for no pay.

Second, Isaacson said newspapers should move towards the micro-payment model for their web-based content — charging a few cents per page for readers, which then gives people the choice to pick and choose what they want to read. And those cents, if the news is good enough, will add up, he argues. This seems to make sense to me, but I wonder if such a model will ever be adapted and, if so, will it be adapted fast enough to save newspapers.

Communities are built around connections, and local newspapers have an important role in their communities. They connect us on many different levels. I would hate to see them all disappear. Even as someone who believes in the digital world, there is still a place in my heart for the walk down to the mailbox in the morning, the scratchy feel of the paper, and the chance go find something unexpected inside the fold that starts my day, thinking.

Read Isaacson’s essay here.

Peace (in the paper),

  1. But what will people do for news if they have no Internet access as is still the case even in some of the ‘wealthiest’ countries in the world? People like my elderly parents who do not have a computer at home nor do they wish to have one.

    • Great point.
      And I think there is still room for a hybrid — paper and digital — that could be profitable and also accessible, and meaningful for readers.
      The question is: will they figure it out? (they being the publishers)

  2. When we moved to our community, I subscribed to the paper for awhile. Now, I use their website when I need news . . . but that only happens a few times a year. Not enough for me to pay for it . . . the micropayment model would have to include REALLY easy payments so that it didn’t become a hassle and therefore a barrier.

    Still, there are those who simply want the feel of the paper in their hands. My mother-in-law gets the paper everyday and loves it. I do enjoy visiting her on Sundays and reading the comics and ads in her Sunday paper.

    Plus, while I was joking on Twitter . . . how else am I going to start my fires all winter?

  3. I don’t read newspapers anymore, even the local one. The fact that I won’t get to read it until Wednesday evening when I know it was printed Tuesday night is a part of it, a whole day old. The other aspect I abhor is the fact that so much of it is provided by outside new organizations. When I pick up a newspaper and see that what they call a section has 4 pages, I feel cheated. The online option is not much better. We have a subscription so I can access the local paper online, or at least part of it, but it’s usually with a direct search, not for real reading pleasure.
    I loved the newspapers of my youth. They were meaty, full of the latest news and delivered close to the time they were published. It was an important event, reading the paper. The option of no newspaper is not a good thing however. That is the only connection many people have to their communities and they provide the best advertisement option for the local businesses. So, I am sorry to see them go. but even sorrier that they left a good while ago.

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