In the Eye of the Newsworld Storm

May 1, 2009

Let's not forget the key ingredient of credible daily journalism.

By MICHAEL MANSUR 

I can imagine that many of us working at a newspaper are beginning to feel a bit like a soldier in a World War I trench. Your buddies are falling all around you and you figure you may soon join them.

And the only thing you know to do is fight on. It seems noble to do so. Besides, you think, where else can I go?

Years ago, in my first big-city job, I sat for a first time with my new newspaper buddies in a local pub. Charlie Roper, a longtime editorial writer and a great newspaper man at the Memphis Press- Scimitar — Edward Meeman's old newspaper, now shuttered, of course —was telling a story from his J-school days at the University of Arkansas.

"What's the purpose of a newspaper," he quoted his journalism school prof.

Around the room, Roper related with great barroom flourish, the students stretched up their arms to answer.

"Right wrongs."

And the teacher shook his head.

"Help the afflicted."

No.

"Give them light….." Roper said, quoting from what was the motto of Scripps-Howard, the company that owned the newspapers in Memphis.

No, the teacher replied. "It's to make money."

Indeed, almost every newspaper in America is a business. Problem is that, for most of my career, I never really had to think much about the truth of Roper's story. I remembered it, but it hardly ever affected me or what I did.

Then came 2008-09.

If it's not known later as the Great Depression of the 21st Century it will be known as the year that newspapers, as we had known them for decades, died. Some are quite gone — the Rocky Mountain News and maybe even the San Francisco Chronicle. The Ann Arbor News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer just announced they are going all online.

Serious doubts are being raised about other news organizations as they struggle on. But its plight is about more than new technology strangling its revenues. Strangely, my newspaper, The Kansas City Star, and its other brothers in the McClatchy news chain of newspapers were profitable in 2008. Yes, they were making money. But the corporation that owned them carried a large debt.

And the recession came, of course. Advertising fell. As did the newspaper's profits.

Won't it come back with the economy? That's one hope. But, then again, I wonder. Might the advertisers who left the print publications return, even with good economic times? Might the old business model of private advertisers paying the freight for the nation's reportage be so fractured by the Internet that only new business models will flourish?

Those worried about the print journalism world's continued existence find much to point to in recent weeks beyond the death notices of once-great publications like the Post-Intelligencer.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released these findings in March: Fewer than half of Americans say that losing their local newspaper would hurt civic life in their community "a lot." Even fewer (33%) say they would personally miss reading the local newspaper a lot.

I wasn't surprised. Just counting the front lawns in the morning that still have newspapers awaiting a homeowner signals those numbers are not so far off. But, then again, who wouldn't establish a business that reached 200,000 homes in almost any American metropolitan area?

Also, what percentage of Americans would say the same about an Internet news site?

Meanwhile, no viable alternative to producing local daily journalism has surfaced. With hope, we look to websites like the Voice of San Diego. Funded with non-profit dollars, it's recently attracted the attention of The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, among others, as a potential model for future local coverage.

The site — www.voiceofsandiego.org — displays an impressive amount of quality, prize-winning journalism. But so far the site attracts only 60,000 unique viewers each month.

So the way out of this predicament has not surfaced as yet. There is officially no way to keep alive credible daily journalism, especially local coverage, if newspapers fail. And it must be something with more information than 140-character tweets.

What emerges, I suspect, will be some combination or hybrid. If the economy improves, enough advertising dollars might support operations for the dedicated remaining millions who still want a printed product, while the same news organization can also feed the Internet masses.

Maybe it will be like the 20th Century's dawn when each town had multiple news operations. Of course all of them were printed. In the future each town may have its own individual combination of news sites that work, possibly in a variety of ways.

Don't know.

But I believe this, for certain: Those guys in the World War I trench. They fought for something as well as their lives. And all of us who labored at newspapers, often for less-than-what-should-have-been-acceptable pay, did so not because they knew a newspaper was a business. They did so because they believed what they did had little business purpose. It simply had purpose. They worked to make a difference.

Newspapers may close or morph into all-Internet operations or change in a variety of other yet-to-be-imagined ways. But that very passion that fueled so many journalists in the 20th and early 21st centuries will be the one thing that leads us to whatever it is that returns and sustains daily journalism, whether it is distributed via the Internet, in a newspaper box or on a TV screen near you.

So here's to that bright future. But getting there – that is the tough part.

Oh, I should note that I have survived my news organization's latest round of cuts. Dozens of others did not, adding to dozens more who have gone before them in the last year. Many of them, I can say for a fact, were as good or better journalists than those left behind. I pray some of them are part of that bright future.

Michael Mansur, SEJournal editor, covers local governments for The Kansas City Star.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring 2009 issue.

MICHAEL MANSUR