What we know about newspapers

Thursday, December 3, 2015

They are not dead. They're not dying. They'll be reborn, again.

He's a wry old newspaperman, speaking in the dark humor of wry old newspapermen.

"You can love a newspaper, kid, but it will never love you back."

He's speaking of his first and truest love, of course, but it's also a rueful foreboding of what he and so many others knew to be true. Newspapers were dying.

He had point. Papers were folding across the country, taken down by a new medium that was all that people were talking about.

A smart guess would be 2009. That year more than 100 newspapers shut down across America, and 10,000 newspaper jobs were cut, victims of the crashing economy and steep drops in newspaper ad revenues.

It was not 2009.

It was 50 years ago, a half-century ago.

Indeed, papers were then folding across the country. Cities that had five or six dailies now had three or just two, even. Brooklyn had lost its beloved Eagle. New York's august Herald Tribune, rival to The New York Times, would soon close.

The new medium so loathed by the wry old newspaperman was television. The internet was not yet imagined.

As it turned out, the wry old newspaperman was dead wrong.

Newspapers were not dying. They were being reborn.

The coming decade, the '70s, may have been their finest decade ever.

The Washington Post broke the Watergate scandal. The Post and Times published the Pentagon Papers. Otis Chandler, having turned his family's Los Angeles Times into a first-rate paper, bought up papers across the country--Baltimore, Hartford, Denver, Dallas--with the aim of turning them into first-rate papers, too. Bright young talents flooded into newsrooms, stirred by the idealism of the '60s. Alternative weeklies launched across the country.

So much for what wry old newspapermen think.

Welcome to Media Life's new series "Reinventing the American Newspaper."

This series is based on several notions held by Media Life's editors from years of covering newspapers. The series will explore and test these notions over the coming months, and they are certainly all open to challenge, as in any discussion.

Notion 1:

Newspapers are not dead. They are not dying. They are ripe for reinvention, and they will be reinvented.

Notion 2:

For whatever damage has been done to newspapers by the internet, far worse damage has been done by mismanagement, incompetence, short-sightedness, greed, thick-headedness and a shocking inability of newspapers to learn vital lessons from their mistakes.

Notion 3:

The internet did not do in newspapers. Newspapers were in trouble long before. The internet just poked a hole, allowing the money to flow out.

Notion 4:

What really did in newspapers was the great killer of all markets--monopoly. That came long before the internet.

As consolidation continued into the '80s, more and more cities became one-newspaper towns. That meant the end of competition, and with it the end of risk-taking, of innovation. Frustrated, smart people left. Money men moved in, and the money flowed out. Profit margins soared.

The trouble came in the last decade when the digital revolution reintroduced competition to local markets.

Newspapers did not know how to sell against other media.

They still aren't very good at it. That is at the heart of their struggle. That is their struggle.

Notion 5:

Print is not dead, and the print newspaper is not dead.

The printed newspaper may indeed seem antiquated, but it has one key advantage: visibility. It's wherever you are, on your desk, in your briefcase, on the coffee table. It insists, look at me, pay attention.

It says look at me, pay attention, even as you are throwing it in the trash.

No digital medium commands such attention. It can't. It's in a box.

The real question for newspapers is whether the economic model works. The answer is yes, it can and does.

Newspapers may be an expensive medium and old-fashioned to boot, but at the end of the day newspapers can still deliver the return on investment advertisers are looking for.

If an advertiser can spend $1 and gets back 25 cents, that's a good deal. It's a better deal than spending 10 cents on digital and getting back a penny. Cheaper does not mean better.

It's up to newspapers to believe in and sell the value of their medium to advertisers.

Notion 6:

Some papers are doing it right, and many of them are small. They've stuck by their communities, reporting honestly and well on all local matters and serving the needs of small advertisers.

That loyalty has paid off. While these papers were hit by the economic downturn, they've weathered the digital onslaught far better than larger papers.

Notion 7:

Editorial matters a whole lot. The newspaper industry has largely forgotten that. People look to newspapers for reporting of the sort radio and TV do not provide. They quit subscribing when they don't find it.

All great newspapers are written for their readers, and it has always been so. The reinvented American newspaper will be all about quality editorial. Editors will figure out new, smarter and more creative ways to cover their communities.

Notion 8:

Newspapers are special. They're different from all other media. They hold a special place in American society, public life, culture and history. We expect more of them, even with all their failings.

We don't care who owns TV networks. They are just names. We care a lot about who owns our newspapers.

Newspapers may change dramatically, but this fundamental aspect of newspapers will not change, and any discussion of newspapers and their future has to accept their uniqueness.

By the editors of Media Life. This story was originally published Wednesday, Nov. 11, on the Media Life Magazine's website.