So what's the deal with newspapers? The slide in circulation and ad revenues is going on two decades now. The Washington Post, no less, recently declared, "The venerable newspaper is in trouble." So it's time to hang the black crepe for the old dead-trees medium. Right?
Before you declare that one-way ticket to obsolescence punched, listen to Paul Steinle and Sara Brown. They'll tell you that reports of the industry's death have been greatly exaggerated.
"They're not dying," Steinle says of newspapers. "They're transforming."
Steinle and Brown aren't theorizing, they're reporting. The former Ashland residents and journalists — he's a former president of UPI and the Financial News Network and news director at Seattle's KING-TV; she's a former human resources executive at the Vancouver Columbian and the Los Angeles Times — spent 13 months traveling to all 50 states to report on the state of the industry. They did their pilot project at the Mail Tribune, but it's not part of the report.
Steinle and Brown packed their notebooks and their dog in a camper and drove to Oklahoma in June 2010, the first stop in a journey that saw them spend about a week in each state in the nation. They started at press associations and asked for the "most interesting" newspaper in each state. Their quest led them from big metro papers such as The Boston Globe to tiny weekly papers, ending at the Grand Forks, N.D., Herald, in July 2011.
After talking with editors, publishers and Web managers, the couple talked about their conclusions Thursday at Southern Oregon University. Here are some highlights:
1. Print is not dead. The industry, in its operations, remains among the most profitable in the country. What papers can't handle is the debt piled on them by corporate merger artists who took them over thinking they were buying profits. The classic example is the purchase of Knight-Ridder by McClatchy for $4.5 billion.
2. Medium and small papers are doing better than large ones.
3. Many papers have given up trying to be a newspaper of record but have renewed their emphasis on local news.
4. The watchdog role is still important.
5. Papers are a medium for community dialogue, especially on their websites.
6. Public service remains as important as ever.
Essentially, "Who Needs Newspapers?" the nonprofit project for which Steinle and Brown reported, found newspapers are recasting themselves in the digital age. For details, see www.whoneedsnewspapers.org and check out the state reports plus Bonus Reports on issues and more than 100 journalists' reflections (J-Epiphanies) on what newspapers do.
Brown and Steinle's work documents the fact that newspapers aren't just newspapers anymore. They are platforms for sound, video and the exchange of information and ideas. The push into Internet delivery and the reallocation of staff are the biggest changes of the past 15 years, and some things that seem obvious now didn't a decade ago.
"We've finally figured out you have to charge (for online content)," Steinle says.
Because if you give your product away for free in one medium, people won't pay in another. Yet "Web trumps print," he says, meaning breaking news must go online first.
It took newsroom types a while to learn to think outside the 24-hour news cycle. But when I went to the Grand Forks Herald website as this column was being written, a story about a fatal car wreck had been posted 56 seconds earlier.
Despite the growing importance of their online operations, newspapers find that print still pays 90 percent of the bills, Steinle and Brown say.
Newsrooms are changing along with the industry. Reporters have become "Swiss Army knife" journalists, shooting photos and video and reporting for multiple platforms, using social media for promotion and website feedback to help guide coverage decisions.
Note: If your daughter insists on studying journalism, tell her to take courses in Web design and computer graphics.
Somehow in all this, papers must find the time for their traditional watchdog role. The couple pointed to a recent Seattle Times investigative report on Amazon's corporate citizenship. The four-part series found that the Internet giant contributes relatively little to the city.
Somehow, despite all the change, the nut of the enterprise, and the ethics it demands, is still the same. Steinle showed video of Kevin Riley, an editor at the Dayton, Ohio, News, remembering covering his first murder, talking to the cops and thinking he had it wrapped up. An editor sent him to the victim's home. The moral: "It's someone's daughter," Riley says.
Meg Martin, a young reporter at the Roanoke Times, talked about the Virginia Tech shootings breaking on one of her first-ever days in the newsroom, and seeing people in the newsroom trying very hard to do the right thing.
"Everything changed for a very long time," she says. "And maybe forever."
Newspapers do things that TV, radio and some guy writing a blog in his kitchen can't do. But people get the news on their phones now. And classifieds have migrated to Craigslist. And changes are coming that we can't even dream of. Maybe the biggest challenge: figuring out how to allocate revenues to digital even though it brings in only 10 percent of the revenues. In the end, paper is just one way to deliver news.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email comments or suggested topics to email@example.com.