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From AJR,   June/July 2012  issue

Who Needs a Newspaper?   

The protest in New Orleans, the huge power failure in Washington, D.C., and the future of print. Tues., July 10, 2012.

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


In a letter protesting the planned phase-out of some printed editions of New Orleans' Times-Picayune, several prominent locals use a familiar but easily overlooked phrase.

They talk about "our daily newspaper."

Our newspaper. It's a common term. In contrast, we talk of "my Facebook," "my subscription to Time," "my Web bookmarks" and just plain old "Channel 2." Does it mean something that we apply individual pronouns for most media but plural ones for newspapers?

Along these lines, I've been wondering whether it's possible―and I think it is―that two totally contradictory points can both be true.

For example:

          (1) We need newspapers less and less every day.

          (2) We need newspapers more and more every day.

This hit me recently as my region reeled from weather extremes that reminded people of how much they and their families rely on quality, timely information.

People around me experienced almost every possible combination of gummed-up connectivity, losing for days various power, cable, Internet, landline and cell services. Thousands could access the grid only by snaking an extension cord to a neighbor's house or trekking toward live wireless or working cell areas.

Most people seemed to forge at least minimal connections. So the arrival of the next morning's newspaper was anticlimactic, at least in terms of timeliness. In addition, both print and electronic versions suffered from loss of staff they once could have poured onto the story.

Washington Post Ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton, responding to reader concerns, called his paper's crisis coverage "okay but not great..too few reporters were out..using their eyes, ears and noses to get the news."

More helpful, often, were hyperlocal sites, social media like Twitter and Facebook, community listservs, cell phone apps, and live TV and radio. As storms and power supplies came and went, huge numbers of people―from professional journalists to regular citizens―contributed to nonstop coverage and conversation across many media.

Clearly, we benefit today from more sources and fuller information than ever before.

These changes suggest that newspapers, both print and electronic, are less vital now. And they are seemingly losing ground, as media writer David Carr contended in a devastating New York Times piece this week. Tablet pioneer Roger Fidler offered a survey showing that more and more people are relying on tablets for their news and finding them more enjoyable than reading a printed newspaper.

This is all powerful evidence that we need newspapers less.

But still.

Every morning when I got up during the recent siege, my first stop was the front yard to find the newspaper.

It couldn't tell me whether a repair crew was on my block. But it still represented a comprehensive report on the overall status of my community. It was reassuring to know that hundreds of professional journalists were doing all they could to provide a unifying supply of information, context and accountability.

At that moment, holding the paper in my hands seemed a true and irreplaceable lifeline. For many, it turned isolation into reconnection.

We're lucky today to have so many sources―a lot of them more immediately helpful than newspapers. But the local paper still stands with us in crises, encourages a shared sense of coping and reminds us of what we have in common.

It's easy to understand why many people in New Orleans want that special kind of "link" every day of the week.