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Where do we go from here?

by Archives April 7, 2009

Five years ago, I started typing words for publication in this newspaper. It was supposed to be the start of a life filled with typing words I hoped people would read in newsprint. A funny thing happened
in five years, though. The Internet took off. People stopped subscribing to newspapers. A recession.
All media outlets (and especially newspapers)
are feeling the brunt of this latest crisis, but it isn’t only due to the recession.
Newspapers put their stories online
and people realized they could just read the newspaper on their computer. Not only their local newspaper, but any newspaper, anywhere in the world.
Readership went down, advertising went down. Layoffs and complete closures
happened. The United States has been hit hardest in terms of newspapers folding. Multi-newspaper cities have become one-newspaper cities. Some major cities may find their newspapers shut down. Chicago saw both of their newspapers file for bankruptcy protection.
San Francisco’s Chronicle is one of many in trouble.
A funny thing is occurring, though. People aren’t caring. Maybe they are content with reading their news online or watching CNN. After all, morning newspapers
are obsolete. Their news is hours old. Right? Wrong.
The general public doesn’t seem to realize
that if their local newspaper shuts down, their local news will be coming from, well, nowhere. Yes, San Francisco can lose the Chronicle because people get their news from USA Today or The New York Times. But, how often will those newspapers talk about community
leaders, be the watchdog for municipal
politicians and have their ear to the grindstone for big stories out of San Francisco? After all, it was the Chronicle that broke the BALCO story.
That’s the pessimist in me. The optimist
in me sees that there will always be a need for people to tell the news. That people know they need the news to come from journalists and there will be a future in this industry.
But the question remains, how can newspapers survive?
I have ideas, but the reporter in me went looking for other ideas, other points of view. And I found some.
Jonah Keri is a sports and stock market
reporter. He writes for the Wall Street Journal, his work has appeared at ESPN.com, The New York Times, Slate, Salon, Playboy and Penthouse.
Oh, right. He is also a Concordia Journalism
alumnus (class of ’97) and wrote sports in the very same newspaper you’re reading now.
“If I owned a newspaper that hasn’t yet folded and is in any kind of decent shape, I would see this period as a great opportunity,” Keri wrote in an e-mail. “All over the world, amazingly talented journalists are being bought out, let go, or simply sinking with the ship of failing newspapers.”
He goes on to point out the fact that it’s often the best writers who are being let go while the “lesser lights” remain, because
they are seen as cheaper, and therefore
more desirable labour.
“It’s a completely backwards approach,”
he wrote. “Surviving newspapers
owe it to their readers, to the quality of their product, and yes, even to future profit goals to try and recruit the best of those refugees. By improving the quality of their content, they’ll make themselves more attractive to readers, and thus to advertisers.”
Keri says that can’t be the only step newspapers take and touches on the often-
rocky and at times timid relationship between newspapers and their online content.
“It’s imperative that papers take a more aggressive approach to succeeding on the Web. That doesn’t mean assigning the overworked assistant metro editor to suddenly become an under-qualified Webmaster and Web site designer too,” he wrote. “Instead, papers need to seek out the best and brightest thinkers on the Web (think Google, not someone within the newspaper industry) to help them build viable, sustainable businesses online.”
Obviously, some very interesting points, and it’s hard to argue with Keri.
There are also a lot of people who have ideas about where newspapers are going. I think that we’re essentially in a transition
period where newspapers are changing
forms and will eventually come out as something new. Is it online-only? Is it limited delivery? I’m not sure but like I said, there will always be a need for news and in some capacity they will continue to exist.
Bill James, is probably best known for his revolutionary look at baseball statistics
and how he has changed a lot of people’s perspective on the game. He also had thoughts on the future of newspapers
on the Future of Newspapers blog (futureofpapers.blogspot.com).
“We’re in this difficult transitional period
where it is unclear how the writers, reporters, researchers and editors are all going to be paid for their efforts in the post- newsprint world,” James wrote. “But to me, it’s just a transitional problem;
in 25 years we’ll be in a better place because we went through this transition.”
James isn’t the only one with a view. Even Mark Cuban, the outspoken owner
of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks has a blog post on the topic. He says that professional sport teams should pay the newspapers for coverage, and allow the papers to keep full editorial control.
I think this view could work, but the obvious problem is the perceived conflict
of interest. Would reporters, even with control over their content, want to break negative stories? Would all teams be as supportive as Cuban seems to be? Difficult to say.
Keri also had a clear direction for newspapers
to take.
“Papers should focus on becoming relentlessly
local,” he wrote. “The sports section should double in size, with even more attention paid to local teams. Metro news should likely expand, with more in-depth stories on issues that matter to people in that city.”
He also said that newspapers could cut costs by no longer purchasing wire services which he calls “costly and probably
extraneous.”
“A reader can get world or national news anywhere,” he finished. “But a newspaper
in Sheboygan, Wisconsin still has the best chance to attract the interest of those who live in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.”
So that’s where newspapers stand. A period
of uncertainty, optimists would consider
it a period of transition. Either way, I remain confident that this column, my last in The Concordian, will not be my final
one in print. Like I thought five years ago, it’s merely the beginning.

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