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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Do Newspapers Have a Future in the U.S.?

With all the changes swirling about in the world of media, no group has been affected more than major metropolitan newspapers. Until very recently, newspaper billed more than any other media type and shrewd investors like Warren Buffett took big stakes in major market papers or bought them outright. It is doubtful if Buffett, known as "The Oracle of Omaha", would chase a newspaper today.

Some of the problem is the fault of the newspapers and some is simply shifting consumer behavior. They of late have been hit by a double whammy of declining readership in general of the daily press plus a weak economy that has hit local car dealers and retailers very hard. But, newspapers were always a bit arrogant. They knew for a long time that they were "the retailer's bible" so they never worked hard for business. For a few years, some did well as their competitors went under and they became the only newspaper choice in town. Several years later, a lot of the advantage wore off as young people avoided them.

For a while an argument was used in newspaper circles similar to one used by radio people. As a teenager, I loved The Beach Boys and The Beatles. Radio people early in my career told me that by the time I was 60, I would be listening to the Big Band sound of the 1940's. It did not happen. My habits have stayed with me.

When newspaper reading began its slow death 20 years ago, a lot of newspaper people said the young generation would eventually come to them. When they became homeowners and parents, newspapers would become an integral part of their daily lives. Well, I speak a lot as a guest lecturer on college campuses. I always ask for a show of hands to see who reads a daily newspaper. Most of the time it is under 10% and these classes are often full of journalism or communications majors. That bodes very poorly for newspapers long term. Ask a group of marketing people in the work force and you will see that if someone is under 40, the odds of he or she reading a daily paper are also very low. The Wall Street Journal bucks the trend, of course, with rising young professionals, but that is a special case for sure.

The college kids almost always say the same thing when I ask why they are not reading a paper. I get comments such as "you have to wait for a specific time each day to get it and news is always happening" or "I can read the parts that I want for free online" and "where are the hot links?" Another comment said in different ways is "a newspaper does not fit into my life." More damning is "reading a daily paper is something my grandparents do!" Does this sound like a group who will suddenly jump to newspaper some day? Not likely, with all the new options shaping up.

Many fairly major papers are really on the skids. They are largely wire service copy with a few local and syndicated columns thrown in. As I travel around the country and read many of them, a fair assessment is that many have become embarrassments.

How can they be saved? Many analysts say that they need to focus more on local events and simply use the wire service copy for national and international news. But that ignores the demographic tidal wave that is headed right at them. They are skewing older and older and young adults are not going to get turned on to newspapers because they cover school board issues or local fires in great detail. Suburban weeklies already cover that well anyway which hurts the metro dailies.

Others say that they need to bite the bullet if the economy continues to be weak and go 100% digital as a few have done. But, the problem with that is the reality that the core base of many newspapers is older, sometimes much older. If you go exclusively digital you lose thousands of the elderly who do not know how to turn on a computer.

Another portion of the digital argument is that dailies need to come up with a roster of new carriers--RSS, podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, iPhone-- the list goes on and on. Can they brand themselves that way? It is possible, I suppose but not enough publishers think in those terms yet.

One publication that stunned me with their excellent transformation to digital was The Christian Science Monitor. To me, it has always been a thoughtful publication that played politics straight down the middle. The new digital version is compact and wisely does not try to do it all. They have a fairly small staff but have kept several foreign bureaus open. They focus on national news and do it very, very well. I wish them well and rarely miss an issue these days. (Check it out at csmonitor.com)

Realistically, some papers will begin to cut back in 2009. Some will kill the Saturday edition; others may go to a frequency of three times per week. But, if the economy stagnates well into 2010, several will simply close their doors. Some fair sized markets will simply not have a daily paper.

There is a social issue that goes beyond the failure of daily papers. Consider the Washington Post in the early 1970's. Katherine Graham was a courageous publisher who had the money and the guts to take on the Nixon administration over The Pentagon Papers and then Watergate. Two young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, doggedly pursued the Watergate story with support from editor Ben Bradlee. It took lots of time and money. They unearthed a great deal of criminal activity and helped bring down the Nixon White House.

What about today? There may be publishers with guts but how many mid-size market publishers have the financial resources to do exhaustive investigative reporting about the corruption of their city's mayor or city council? As each week goes by, the odds seem less and less.

America will be poorer in many ways without a free and vibrant daily press in every city of size. Bloggers are great for an open society and for bringing unorthodox viewpoints to the forefront. But, bloggers have limited resources and while they can raise issues and concerns, they can only go so far. Will there ever be another Woodward & Bernstein with a wealthy and gutsy patron to back them up and allow them to keep digging for extended periods of time? Will corruption go unchecked here or there because no one has the resources to blow the whistle or even know there is a problem?

Sadly, most American newspapers are dinosaurs. They need to reinvent themselves quickly or they will surely become extinct.

To contact Don Cole directly, you may e-mail him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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