Saturday, August 18, 2018

Demise of print newspapers may have far-reaching consequences

For those of us who still love getting our news from newspapers, those inky, crinkly, thin sheets of wood pulp you hold in your hands and read, these indeed are sad times. Print newspapers, thanks in large part to the meteoric rise of smartphones and online and social media, are in serious decline.

That decline is even more dramatic in places where they are are needed most – the villages, towns and smaller cities across America where print newspapers have long been a key link to the community.

In the short four-year period between 2012 and 2016, the number of daily newspapers in the United States fell from 1,425 in 2012 to 1,286 in 2016.

And the print decimation continues. In late June, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a long explanation of why it is cutting the weekly number of days it prints from seven to five. The stated reason in a letter to union employees, those most-hurt by the cutback: “We have decided that becoming a digital newspaper is our future.”

This week Post-Gazette Editor David Shribman explained to readers that the cutback is a “… dramatic step into the digital future of news, transforming itself from a medium steeped in print into a fresh new profile committed to all the potential of the new communications world.” 

Translation: Print newspapers are not our top priority anymore.  It is much cheaper to place news stories onto a website with the click of a button than to print them on paper. Newspapers require buying newsprint by the ton, ink by the barrel, hugely expensive printing presses and trucks to distribute them, not to mention paying the many carriers needed to deliver them to your home.

Newspapers feeling the financial strain have already made deep cuts where it is easiest: in newsroom reporters and editors. The Pew Research Center recently reported that due to declining readership and advertising sales, employment of news personnel since 2007 – a time when smartphones and social media burst onto the scene - dropped by nearly half: 74,000 to 39,000.

Many media analysts believe it won’t be long before print newspapers disappear. If it happens, they in large part will be devoured by a voracious horde of online and social media, many of which have little respect for the notion that the first function of news reporting is to present good, honest, factual and relevant information about the community it serves.

That means holding up a mirror to the community and reflecting it back – an honest mirror, not a distorted fun house mirror, as is often the case these days.

All of that is too bad, not only for reporters and editors who are losing jobs, but more so for newspaper readers themselves. They are missing out on a daily chance come together as a community and celebrate the things that unite us, not the things that divide us. Much of today’s news reporting, in all media. doesn’t make us feel better. It makes us feel worse.

Back in the days when most households read a daily paper, we were a kinder and gentler people. While newspapers reported on the mayhem of day-to-day living – crime, war, disease, crooked politics and human tragedies -- they also balanced it with plenty of human-interest news about the good in people:

The burly construction workers who raised dimes and quarters for a little boy with cerebral palsy to buy a computer, so he could “talk.”

The first-grade teacher who taught her students to read, took them on their first trip to a library and opened their eyes to a whole new world.

The fireman who had his hands burned into two lumps of charcoal, but expressed no bitterness about his fate. “Part of the job,” he said.

The Confirmation class of a Catholic school that attended the funeral of a homeless man who had no one to mourn him.

The politician who went out and spent time working at everyday jobs, so he could feel and understand what his constituents go through every day.

These examples are all real. I know. I wrote all of them, and more. And I got more positive reader reaction from those kinds of stories than all the hundreds of political stories I wrote in a nearly 50-year career.

Where are such stories now?  There might be some, but they are few and far between.  Reporters are reluctant to suggest such stories for fear that their editors might accuse them of “going soft” and relegate them to the back bench. So, they give them what they want: more nasty, negative stories about politics and politicians. 

Moreover, newspapers I worked for took their roles as community citizens seriously.  The Buffalo (N.Y) Evening News sponsored a crippled children’s summer camp, the annual Western New York Science Fair, a Newspaper in the Classroom program, a summer snapshot contest and (talk about a day gone by) a teen Back-to-School Fashion Show.

The News even sent reporters out in summer to cover “neighborhood days” at Crystal Beach, an amusement park, across the Niagara River in Canada. Their task was to gather the results of the kids’ (the word “kids” was banned from The News; it was always “children”) three-legged races, beanbag-throwing and horseshoe-pitching contests, all of which were reported in the afternoon paper by the time they got home. And as grizzled editors warned us under penalty of death: “Don’t spell anyone’s name wrong.”

The Utica (N.Y.) Observer-Dispatch sponsored Operation Sunshine which raised money for needy children and families at Thanksgiving, Christmas and in the summer for camp.  Stories of children, whether it be for sports or for school or for just good deeds, were always a big feature in the O-D.

Many other newspapers had similar programs. And some still do.  But will that kinder and gentler reporting and community involvement continue when print newspapers are gone?

If the steady stream of negative reporting and snarky comment that dominate online and social media today become the norm, and our political polarization as a people escalates, I doubt it.

But I prefer to be an optimist. As a founding member of USA Today, I took seriously the words of the late Al Neuharth, chairman of the Gannett Co.  printed in 1982 on the paper’s first front page:

“USA Today hopes to serve as a forum for better understanding and unity to make the USA truly one nation.”

Without print newspapers, that hope is likely to dwindle and fade away.

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