KathyHare.com 

A Journalist's Archive

Newspaper Blues
By Kathy Hare

          Daily newspapers all over the country are dropping like flies after the first frost. On February 27, the Rocky Mountain News published its last edition, after delivering newspapers to doorsteps across Colorado for nearly 150 years. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer printed its final edition on March 17. Other newspapers, such as the Denver Post and The Gazette, have sliced their staff to the bare bones. Even The Wall Street Journal, a national newspaper, is merely limping along as the industry struggles to adapt to the Web-based world.

          It's not as if the journalistic world didn't see this coming. The majority of newspapers, including the one you are reading now, have online sites. However, most internet news sites do not generate enough revenue to pay reporters, photographers, and editors. So news outlets still rely on the print side of their business to perform that function, but the industry was hit by a triple whammy in 2008. Printed media generates income from three sources: advertising, subscriptions, and classified ads. As the economy declined, advertising budgets shrank. Subscriptions also declined as more people turned to free online news sites. Then overnight, Craigslist, the Web site where you post items for sale, took a huge bite out of the classified advertising market.  

          Adding to the print world's woes is a demographic reality. According to a Carnegie Corporation study, reading a newspaper is "an old man's game." The average age of a daily newspaper reader is 55. Ok, it's a fact of life, technology changes everything. But I think it's a crying shame that most Americans now prefer to get their news the same way they buy their food - fast, cheap, and lacking in nutritional value. To add insult to injury, once readers chew on an article for a few seconds, they are compelled to express their "feelings" on the news site's blog, blasting any author who writes something they don't want to hear.

          Now before you start calling me a Luddite, I embraced computer technology back in 1973, when I was employed by Digital Equipment Corporation. I can say that's probably before most of you were born, because Carnegie's quote only applies to daily newspapers. Most small town newspapers are faring far better than the rest of the industry, and still appeal to a wider audience. And yes, I too surf news sites, especially international ones, in an attempt to stay informed. Otherwise, I wouldn't know for a fact that 98 percent of the comments posted on news blogs are pure trash! However, I appreciate the 2 percent of bloggers who actually contribute additional facts and present their arguments in a logical manner.

          Regardless, it's a fact that daily newspapers are now in the same boat as General Motors - it's reinvent or die time! But I'm not the only person lamenting the lack of objective reporting in the digital world. A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism concludes that "fact based news" is taking a heavy hit during this transitional time frame. Since 2001, the number of journalists in America  decreased by 25 percent. Today, few print papers or digital based news outlets can afford to send reporters to cover local, state, or federal meetings. Therefore, Americans have lost their "watchdogs" that once helped to keep politicians in check.

          In order to trim costs, some publishers now have reporters watch government meetings online. Believe me, writing a report about a meeting without being there is not the same, because reporters miss the little nuances that encourage them to dig deeper. Who is that person whispering in the senator's ear? Why is a representative currying favor with a certain banker or industrial magnate? Why is a developer high-fiving a commissioner in the parking lot before a county board meeting? None of this is seen online because most lobbyists are smart enough to stay out of the view of Webcams.

          Losing the people who ask these questions already limits the amount of factual news Americans receive. According to the Pew report, during the 2008 election most of the information Americans received about their candidates came directly from "news releases" generated by political staff workers. Granted, the media can be biased, but I would rather read news sources with different political slants than rely on "press releases" to determine which candidate deserves my vote.

          Hospitals, government agencies, large corporations, universities, school districts, etc., also issue press releases via their media department, or agent. Many of these organizations have enacted a policy stating that no employee other than their media representative can talk to the press. It's not difficult to see how this limits the amount of information the public receives. But in spite of the bad rap reporters have received, evidently some are doing their jobs correctly or these institutions would not be afraid of them.

          Digital media is supposed to generate funding from advertising or by selling subscriptions to their sites. But the majority of internet advertising dollars are being absorbed by the search engine giants Goggle and Yahoo. This leaves little revenue for news sites that would normally have many employees to create their Web content. Furthermore, the only sector that has been able to turn a profit by selling internet subscriptions is the pornography industry.

          But that doesn't mean the press has stopped trying. On March 17, former Rocky Mountain News employees decided to start their own "digital only" newspaper. I wish them the best of luck! Unfortunately, if the Pew report is correct, their business model stands little chance of succeeding. The reporters need to sell 50,000 subscriptions at $59.98 each, in order to turn a profit. Their model has been tried before; however previous attempts failed because of the number of free news sites already in existence.

          Given the realities of the digital world, perhaps I can offer a suggestion to the ex-Rocky employees, or any other newspaper that actually wants to make a profit online. First, post all the news for free, but add two X-rated tabs labeled male and female that readers can access only after paying an annual fee of $180. Subscribers can then choose to click on either tab. Up will pop a good looking nude newsreader; profits will roll in, and publications will once again be able to pay reporters to investigate the news.

          Sadly folks, this is not an April Fool's joke. Enjoying a newspaper with your morning coffee will soon be a thing of the past. That's ok - think of the trees we will save. But until news outlets find a way to pay Lois Lane, the death of the "dead tree" industry is leaving readers with a lot less facts.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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