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.
Peace (in the paper),