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Newspapers report their woes because it is a story

I read a story in the New York Times this week that piqued my interest. The basic gist: Even though TV news also is losing audience at a rapid pace, you’re not likely to hear about it. But newspapers? There isn’t a person who pays attention to the news, whether from TV or print or online exclusively, who doesn’t know newspapers are in trouble.

The article is based on a University of Pennsylvania study that looked at the issue in some of the top papers and TV news shows. The study found: Looking at print, broadcast and cable news stories over a nine-year span, there were 900 stories on declining readership that appeared in newspapers, but only 22 stories on declining news viewing that appeared on television. You can read the whole study (I haven’t yet) in this PDF.

“While television ignored its own drop in viewership, it did report on loss of print readers. There were 38 national television news broadcast devoted to declines in newspaper readership, mostly on CNBC and FOX News. Newspapers, in comparison, ran 95 stories on the decline of television news viewing; over half of these coming from three sources: The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press.”

You could argue that all this reporting our own woes is contributing to the demise. Or that it’s narcissistic: Woe is me, the newspaperman whose newspaper may not exist next decade. Really, both of those are probably fair points to an extent. But that doesn’t make it any less of an important story. Plus, the real story is that as a whole fewer people are paying attention to the news. And what does that mean for our country and our communities?

What made me realize this is the number of people on my beat in the past month who have stopped to ask me how our paper is doing. Questions range from, “What’s the deal with newspapers?” to “How many stories a day do you write these days?” to “When is your furlough?” to “I bet you’ve been hit hard with layoffs.” to “How closely are you tied in to the fortunes of Gannett?” It’s not just idle curiosity, however, on the part of rubber necking community members. Many of these questions come from leaders who are concerned that what we do will not get done. That’s why they’re watching with interest and concern.

One person even told me his son wants to be a sports columnist. I didn’t know what advice to give him. Do I, for the sake of the kid’s financial security, tell him now might be a good time to reconsider? Or do I, for the sake of the need for someone to do this job in the future, whatever format it takes, tell him “Awesome! Talk to our sports editor about an internship.” (For what it’s worth, I’m still optimistic enough that I chose the latter.)

I was stopped Monday after a school board meeting by one of the district administrators. He and I work together a lot, and I had just explained to him I would be off next week for my furlough so if anything happened to please contact my editor. (I also wanted to check and make sure he wasn’t planning anything crazy like announcing his retirement. Not that he would but one of my good friends, an education reporter at another paper, had just that happen while he was on furlough last week!)

The administrator said he was really concerned about who will do what newspapers do if newspapers do not exist. “I worry about what it will mean for democracy to lose the thoughtful, analytical reporting,” he told me.

Me too.

Even though it’s painful to read about another newspaper closing, another round of layoffs, a second or more furlough, the public should know. It is a story. As much as the county commissioners doing something, or the Mayor deciding something, or the school board cutting something, newspapers have the potential to affect, in a very real way, our communities.

I think that is part of why we hear more about newspaper concerns than TV. Not to discount the work of TV journalists, because some do great work and service. But to be honest, in my experience and your market may be different, local TV doesn’t hold a candle to the local paper. (I would put both the national news shows and bigger newspapers, which the study above looked at, on a different plane altogether.) You can’t tell the same thing in a 30-second story that you can in 30 or even 10 inches. Although there are multiple broadcasts, they’re not reporting more news, and what gets reported is shallower. I can give you examples of important stories that affect hundreds or thousands of children and families that I have written within the past month that our TV station has yet to report.

Even beyond the local reporters writing the news, there are other things newspapers do that no one else, at least for now, is doing. A TV broadcast isn’t going to run a legal ad detailing the planned building next your home. Nor is it going to tell you who among your regular neighbors died or was born today. They might highlight the worst restaurant atrocities once a year during sweeps, but we run the inspections and violations every week. There are other everyday things, even beyond our No. 1 government watch dog role that takes us to meetings and stake outs and court houses, that communities will miss if not for a newspaper. Making sure the reporting needed to produce this journalism gets done, in whatever format it lands, is important. That’s why I’m not concerned about TV’s demise the way I am about newspapers. That’s why it is a bigger story, even if, truthfully, it’s a shared problem.

One Response to “Newspapers report their woes because it is a story”

  1. Kate Martin Says:

    Good post, Meranda. I have a comment that is a bit off-topic, but that you addressed briefly in your post.

    I’m also running into a lot more concerned people who want to know how our local paper is doing. While my shop is not affiliated with a huge, publicly traded company, we are facing layoffs, wage cuts and furloughs.

    Their concern is so genuine that sometimes I can’t help but tear up a bit. A college president told me that if the newspaper went under, we might as well snatch his morning coffee out of his hand, too.

    I love reporting on news. While the cynics are alive and well, to see people so emotionally vested in what I do on a daily basis makes me feel like what I do matters.