It’s Not Over Yet
Newspapers still have a key role to play in our lives.
Thursday, December 6, 2007
I was struck this past weekend by the announcement in the Monterey County Herald that the Sunday “Commentary” section I was reading would be the last one printed.
According to a note from Opinion Page Editor Royal Calkins, the four-page weekly section’s demise “is the latest victim of the economic winds that have been driving daily newspapers to reinvent and reconfigure to find new ways to compete in the Internet age.”
Calkins lamented that the loss of space for opinion and analysis is “painful” to those involved in creating it. Well, it also is painful for the community and readers who like to engage in debate and be challenged by ideas.
Now, it may seem strange/wrong/stupid/fill in the blank for me to express sympathy for a competitor, but as a resident of the community and as a journalist, I feel the loss. Both as the new editor of the Weekly and as a newcomer to Monterey County, it is part of my job to read the daily newspapers, the other weeklies in the area, and the community newsletters that find their way to my work mailbox and the front steps of my home. I like to see the variety, the different takes on issues, how stories are approached and what other papers deem worthy of coverage.
Before you think, “Oh, geez, more hand wringing by the media. They should have kept up with the times and been more on the ball about the power of the Internet.” Well, maybe you are right.
But consider some of the things newspapers do that the Internet does not.
Newspapers have standards, a code of ethics and we check the facts. Much of the “news” on Internet sites – and radio and TV – is gleaned from newspapers. Bloggers would not have much to blog about without newspapers, and often don’t credit the source.
In serving our communities, newspapers take the time to delve deeper, tell people what is going on in their backyards and act as watchdogs over city leaders. We are held to account by our readers. And sometimes we even get the bad guys.
The Internet has had a tremendous effect on how we gather and present news, and it is an important component of the information age. The glut of stuff on the Internet has presented us with challenges to keep readers engaged that the industry did not face even five years ago. And it is true that we have done some of this to ourselves: shareholder demands for high profits – at one chain the mandate is 35 percent – have created a monster that seems untamable.
The situation has forced many talented people, especially young ones, to re-evaluate whether there will be a future in this business. One of my previous employers, a large “statewide” paper, has seen more than 70 people depart in the past 18 months, some laid off, some out of the business, some to public relations or political jobs that pay better and demand fewer hours. By year’s end, it will have cut off home delivery to entire parts of the state, including the rapidly growing western portion. Ironically, the employee departures may save the newspaper from ordering layoffs or offering buyouts, but there is not much optimism that will be the case. Profits are good, just not as good as in the past, and the company stock in recent weeks has been at a 10-year low.
Still, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Project for Excellence in Journalism and Rick Edmonds of The Poynter Institute, each day about 51 million people buy a newspaper and, all told, 124 million still read one.
And while the industry is “unquestionably ailing,” they write, “The industry is recording pre-tax profit margins in the high teens, and online editions are adding readers and advertising revenues at a healthy pace. When online and print readers are combined, the audience for what newspapers produce is higher than ever.”
At the Weekly, we are growing because we cover the community well and are not beholden to a corporation for which the bottom line is, well, the bottom line.
Granted, I am partisan, but ever since reading Calkins’ note on Sunday, I have been thinking about John Donne’s meditation, “No Man Is An Island,” which puts forth the idea that as members of humankind, we are all inextricably connected. There is no getting out of it.
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” Donne wrote “… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee… ”
In the case of newspapers, which are cutting back in size, depth and page counts, I hope what is happening at the Herald is not a harbinger of its future or of newspapers in general. Because even though we are competitors, when one newspaper can’t do its job as well as it used to, it is a collective hit on all newspapers – and we all hear the bell.