Confronting the Future  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Letters
From AJR,   June/July 2008

Confronting the Future   

By Unknown
     


Regarding the stories "Maybe It Is Time to Panic" and "Enough Is Enough" in the April/May issue, it's patently obvious how to stop the slide of newspapers into oblivion: Torch your Web sites. Burn 'em down. If people wish to be informed, make them pay for a good, quality product with a 300-year track record─the newspaper. To borrow a metaphor from the media's current fascination with prostitution: If you're giving it away free out the back door of the brothel, the paying customers will disappear.

It's lunacy for newspapers to post their stories on the Web when there is no viable way to post the advertisements that pay for the reporting. The medium of the Internet simply doesn't support a practical model for the reader to observe ads in tandem with stories and never will.

But 10 years ago, publishers piled on to the Internet bandwagon, believing that if they got a head start with their own Web sites the riches would somehow materialize once someone solved the conundrum of advertising. Now, they're paying for their greed, pumping resources into a bad model for the newspaper. It's similar to the dotcom bubble going bust in the '90s when the geniuses of Silicon Valley learned that people would rather shop in stores than online.

The all-purpose local Web newspaper that is a "must-visit" for readers will never succeed because the Web is too amorphous and the medium undercuts the newspaper's age-old monopoly. Posting a newspaper Web site just adds more gas to the fire of burning down the institution of print.

Newspapers need to spend less time studying technology and more time studying human nature. If there was a national movement to scuttle newspaper Web sites and make our content sacrosanct, combined with a new commitment to jazzing up our pages, you'd see this downward spiral turn around.

Robert Downes
Editor/co-publisher
Northern Express Weekly
Traverse City, Michigan

I read with ironic bemusement Carl Sessions Stepp's piece of admonition to the news media ("Maybe It Is Time to Panic"). He represents the huge intellectual disconnect between the reader and the media. At no time in his piece did he choose to address the reader's No. 1 complaint about the media. For years, the public in poll after overwhelming poll has been screaming about the lack of balance. The public approval rating of the media is somewhere between 9 percent and 19 percent, depending on who is conducting the poll. An F starts at 69 percent. This makes the news media by statistic the sleaziest legal profession in existence.

Unless and until the media start recognizing this and making the appropriate changes to provide what the reader wants, the bloodbath will continue. Truly we are in the modern day renaissance of yellow dog journalism.

John Wilder
Jacksonville, Florida

When will I be able to open up AJR and see a truly representative story about the true benefits newspapers provide in today's world?

Instead of reading about their demise, in EVERY SINGLE ISSUE, why can't we be doing stories that get to the root of all?

In fact, there is still no one single medium that gets a better return for an advertiser's investment than a newspaper. More people consistently read their newspaper and act on the invitation to do business with the advertisers than on any Web site, and this trend will continue for a LONG time.

Tell me one place where you can guarantee the same person will see your ad, day in and day out, on a Web site. You can't. Because Web site traffic is too fickle and there are too many Web sites for people to choose from. Just look at the Facebook/My Space trends. It used to be Yahoo! before that. In a matter of a year, people got bored with Yahoo! instant chat and moved on to more interactive things.

Which brings me to the story I'd really like to see. What should papers be doing? Instead of worrying about how long we will be around, we should get back to what made us what we are: Local news that only we can do! People will still read things about their neighbors and people who live among them. Even though we may not be able to compete against the age of "instant breaking news" in our printed pages anymore, we still have readers who want local news.

If all the corporate people put as much effort into getting their editors to cover what the reader actually wants, and for that matter, can't get anyplace else, then they would be much better off, and would be able to steadily stop the decline of their circulation.

Newspapers, although having to adapt to the changing population and needs of the younger readers, have always found ways to keep people reading. It was no different when I was young, and it will be no different for the next group of youngsters either. The key lies in being able to get them interested in what they are reading. Kids today spend more time reading books than my generation ever did. But it is the same principle that brings them to it. It's informative, entertaining and educational. The foundations newspapers were built on.

We need to collectively ring the bell that newspapers are here, we're strong and we are not going to be replaced. We just simply must do things a little differently. That starts with thinking differently in the newsrooms and staying aggressive with our message to our clients. If we keep writing the doom and gloom stories about ourselves, who will be left to blame for the ultimate tumble?

Now that would make a good story!

Jeff Schumacher
General manager
Mountaineer Publishing Co.
Waynesville, North Carolina

I'm so angry at institutions in journalism calling for its practitioners to give up the old ways. This is like the Catholic Church adopting elements of Protestantism to get more customers.

There comes a point where compromising constituted standards becomes so prevalent that one must concede that we've lost the mission. We're guided in a quest to accommodate confirmed non-readers rather than our faithful readership.

There's so much talk of new competition, but name one that's risen with the venerable institutions. All arguments come to an end with the reality that the pros are emulating the amateurs.

Dave Bernard
Public affairs
WRCA Radio
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Correction

A story in AJR's April/May issue, "Investigating the Dean," incorrectly reported the date that Dean John Lavine announced plans to change the curriculum of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, and mischaracterized the faculty's role in the process. The curriculum overhaul was first announced by Lavine in 2006 and did include faculty input.

###