The demise of newspapers – revisited

October 15, 2009 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, newspapers, web journalism.

A few months ago, I wrote a piece about the demise of newspapers being a good thing for the future of journalism.

Today, I am using those ideas — and a new more — as a basis for a speech I am giving to the Knoxville Torch Club.

Here is the basic text of the talk:

A couple of weeks ago, my son got married in Washington, D.C., at the Willard Hotel . . . [STORY] (audio to come)

What’s this got to do with newspapers? Nothing. And that’s the point.

What’s this got to do with journalism? A lot, I think.

Our world of communication – and our way of delivering the news – has shifted dramatically over the last ten years, even over the last five years. Print is no long a viable option of telling ourselves about ourselves on a timely basis, which is what journalism is. Print is slow, cumbersome, limited and expensive.

The web, on the other hand, is fast, flexible, inexpensive and seems to offer the future of journalism a cafeteria of possibilities that make the future both bright and interesting.

That’s why I believe the quicker we can get over our adherence to print in journalism, the better journalism will be.

Now, notice the wording of this talk. I said the demise of newspapers, not the death of newspapers. I do not wish death upon newspapers.

I grew up, so to speak, with newspapers. Reading them and later working for them. I have worked for six different newspapers as a reporter and editor, and since I have been in academia I have consulted with many more. I have many friends and former students who are fulltime newspaper people. I do not wish them ill.

And, in fact, I do not believe that newspapers in general are going to die. Some have, and some will, certainly. But when you look at the newspaper industry as a whole, particularly smaller newspapers, you see an industry that is in pretty good shape.

Smaller newspapers are better able to weather the rough economic climate that we are experiencing today. And, I think, they have more time to figure out the new media environment that we are in. Plus, their structure makes them more flexible and adaptable, and I think there is a great chance that they will come through all of this – though I believe their days of monopolistic practices and fat profits are over.

So, if a journalism student still wants a career in newspapers, I think it’s still a viable option.

But if a student is interest in doing journalism, I no longer think that newspapers are the best option. In fact, I’m not convinced that they are a very good option – for the reasons I mentioned earlier. They are slow, cumbersome, and expensive.

And they are limited.

Newspapers, by their very nature, can give you the news in only one way – print. The web can use a variety of forms and formats – text, pictures, audio, video and combinations of these platforms. Newspapers are geared to production deadlines. The web has significantly less production time involved in the process, and that production is significantly cheaper.

The quicker that newspapers transform themselves into news organizations – ones where print is only a small portion of what they do – the better off they will be. And the better off we, as news consumers, will be. To do that, newspapers will not only have to change what they do but also the way they think.

And here, I think, the evidence is discouraging.

Newspapers should be hiring reporters and editors rather than firing them.

Newspapers should be investing in journalism and in innovative ways to inform their readers rather than cutting back on page numbers and page sizes.

Newspapers should be looking for new ways to serve their readers. They should be trying to find new services based on the fact that they are the chief information gatherers in their communities.

Newspapers should be more attuned to what their audiences want and need. And they should be more responsive.

Several months ago, I was trying to sell a house. I visited the web site of the local newspaper to find out information about buying a classified ad. That began a rather torturous journey that wasted an hour of my time . . .[STORY](audio to come)

If newspapers are going to have paid subscribers – and I think that is a BIG IF – they should stop whining about the Internet and charge those subscribers something much closer to the cost of production than what they do now.

Finally, newspapers have to accept two irrefutable facts:

• Their economic environment has changed. They are no longer the monopolies that can command 20, 30, or even 40 percent profit margins.

• News and information is no longer what they thought it was.

In the good old days – about 10 years ago – news was a product. Newspapers produced it and sold it.

But the world is shifting so that news is now conversation. Economically, how does that work? The answer is we don’t know. But there it is.

Let me give you a non-newspaper example of this:

I coordinate all of the sections of our beginning news writing course. We offer about 11 sections, and once a week, all of those sections come together for a lecture that I give. There are between 150 and 200 students there. Most of you have probably heard of Twitter. [EXPLAIN] Well, Twitter is not all that popular with students . . .[STORY] (audio to come)

Unfortunately, I do not see a lot of evidence that newspaper are accepting their new environment or changing their thinking. There is very little innovation going on with newspapers now. It’s most retrenchment and hoping that all of this will go away.

The innovation is being done by Google and Yahoo and the small entrepreneurs who will shape the new media world. They are the ones that are creating a very bright future for today’s journalism students.

And that is why I believe that the demise of newspapers, ultimately, will be a good thing for journalism.

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