Our opinion:The future of news

In the summer of 2005, Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi, in a piece for American Journalism Review, wrote about the failing newspaper industry, and how, despite many challenges, there was a place for newspapers in our collective futures.

"The media have been covering the bad news about newspapers for years," Farhi wrote. "To see and read these accounts is to encounter an industry that seems on the verge of crisis, and possibly on the edge of the abyss."

Consider this comment Farhi referenced, from Slate media critic Jack Shafer: "In many U.S. markets, the dominant paper is a fading enterprise. . . . In the long run, no newspaper is safe from electronic technologies." Or this one, from Barron's Online columnist Howard R. Gold: "A crisis of confidence has combined with a technological revolution and structural economic change to create what can only be described as a perfect storm . . . [P]rint's business model is imploding as younger readers turn toward free tabloids and electronic media to get news."

To be sure, a lot has changed since the first U.S. newspaper was printed on Sept. 25, 1690. [That would be Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick, for you history buffs out there. ] Credit those changes to advances in technology, changes in society and the way people want or expect their news, or development of new delivery methods. Still, one thing remains clear: People want the news. They want to know what's going on in their communities, in their state, around the country, around the world.

Consider the Reformer's past hundred years: Throughout the past 10 decades, each change has brought with it changes that could be viewed as positive and negative. In the beginning there was expansion to allow room for growth - more people, more news, more product. Over time, technology allowed newspapers to do more with less. These days, it's all about diversifying how we present our product. But one thing has never changed in that timeframe: At the end of the day, the newspaper, however you choose to view it, is a collection of the days' news written and presented by a trained staff of newspeople (reporters, editors, etc.).

Reporting this week for the New York Times on the recent spin-off of newspapers from larger media companies, David Carr highlights just how dire today's reality is for newspapers: "Newspapers will be working without a net as undiversified pure-play print companies. Most are being cut loose after all the low-hanging fruit, like valuable digital properties, have been plucked. Many newspapers have sold their real estate, where much of their remaining value was stored.

"More ominous, most of the print and magazine assets have already been cut to the bone in terms of staffing. Reducing costs has been the only reliable source of profits as overall revenue has declined. Not much is left to trim."

Let's return to Farhi's piece for a moment. In it, he juxtaposes the newspaper industry against other modern forms of information dissemination - local and cable TV news, magazines and the Internet - and makes a case (albeit a little dated at this point) for why newspapers, more than any other news outlet, are best positioned to weather this storm of new-age news consumption. While he breaks this down to several major points, let's consider just these three: First, localism. "Readers will always want to know about the schools, government, businesses, taxes, entertainment and teams closest to home. No news organization is better equipped or staffed to supply this information than a newspaper." Attention from readership. "Newspapers no longer play the central role in people's daily lives they once did, but they are far from irrelevant. Some 42 percent of adults surveyed by the Pew researchers in 2004 reported that they had read a newspaper 'yesterday' (a figure that rose slightly over 2002). With the exception of local TV news, no other news source reaches so many people on a given day." And lastly, brand-name recognition. "Newspapers big and small have spent millions of dollars over the years reminding people what they do. This has created a vast but hard-to-measure reservoir of goodwill for newspapers. . . ." To be sure, the editorial board knows that local news - big and small - is why people continue to read this newspaper, both in print and online. But, in a changing media landscape, covering our local communities in a thorough and timely fashion - especially in this age of instant gratification and immediacy - continues to be a challenge.

"A free-market economy is moving to reallocate capital to its more productive uses, which happens all the time," Carr writes. "Ask Kodak. Or Blockbuster. Or the makers of personal computers. Just because the product being manufactured is news in print does not make it sacrosanct or immune to the natural order.

"It's a measure of the basic problem that many people haven't cared or noticed as their hometown newspapers have reduced staffing, days of circulation, delivery and coverage.

"Will they notice or care when those newspapers go away altogether?" Well, we sure hope so! To that end, Strolling of the Heifers is hosting a panel discussion, this Thursday, on the future of local journalism. The session, at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden, includes: Ed Woods, publisher of the Brattleboro Reformer and its regional sister publications; Jeff Potter, interim editorial and operations director of The Commons; Tom D'Errico, editor of the Reformer; and Martin Langeveld, a media observer and former newspaper executive. Questions and comments from the audience will be welcomed.

The group will tackle two key questions: As print media decline in popularity and digital access to news continues to increase, how is the nature of local journalism changing? And, given the trends toward digital delivery and consumption of local news, what business models can sustain journalism going forward? Local journalism continues to be a valuable watchdog for the public good.

Growing pains may hurt, but ultimately change can be good. One thing that will never change, however, is the value of local news.

- Brattleboro Reformer


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