August 7, 2013
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
In the spirit of carrying coals to Newcastle, I write a newspaper column today on the importance of newspapers to the public square. More specifically, I fear the effect on public policy and the public debate of the continuing decline of newspapers. For all the bluff and bluster so many of us have about new media and technology, the skeletal underpinning of almost all news today is news gathering that comes from the old fashioned, grandfatherly, dead tree, black and white broadsheets we love to ridicule.
As newspapers began to flourish in the 1800s, they became a historical archive of who we are. The history of almost any single event, trend, or period of development can be traced by simply researching the records scratched out on a daily basis in papers right and left, high-brow and low-brow, sensational, and staid.
As radio and, particularly, television became more important people became immersed in media sources that added sound and pictures to the less exciting printed word. Some of that change was reflected in language. The words journalism (which describes a written periodical) and press (the means of producing those written words) began to be replaced by media (which is simply a plural of mediums of communication).
Through the changes and the excitement of television anchors with nice hair, though, much of the underlying work, the more detailed background work that might inform a shorter visual piece, came from an industry that relied on humans gathering information, sifting through it, and explaining it in longer form printed pieces that still managed to encompass a historical record.
I had the interesting experience five or six years ago of sitting in a radio studio, waiting to go on the air, and reading a local newspaper sitting on the desk. About two-thirds of the front page was highlighted and I noticed that the pre-taped news report was taken word for word from the page without credit. The listener thought he got his news from the radio but it was gathered by the newspaper.
Through the rise of broadcast media, newspapers continued to thrive. For many years, a typical newspaper was supported by about 80% advertising revenue and 20% circulation revenue. For more than a half century revenues kept rising from about $20 billion nationally in 1950 to a peak of $65 billion fifty years later.
Then the bottom fell out with modest decline and a collapse during the recession. Today revenues are about what they were in 1950 ($22 billion in 2012). The last few years have seen very small declines in revenue so perhaps things are stabilizing. Certainly things are changing. Online revenues are now 15% of ad revenues. One major paper, The New York Times, has changed its payer mix to 50% ads/50% circulation though that model may be unique to that product.
What is still true is that newspapers remain the most important part of our public square with no obvious replacement available. Many people are quick to tell you that they get all their news from the internet and so have no use for papers. But they’re wrong.
Most blogs, facebook aficionados, and other new media opinion leaders take news gathered by someone else and recast or interpret it. The person who gathered the news you reposted, respun, or re-reported was employed, in most cases, by the supposedly archaic newspaper. Few internet opinion influencers of either right or left go to the hearing, the council meeting, file the public information request, or interview the newsmaker directly. So, perhaps 80-90% of the information being used to form opinions come from the fewer and fewer newsroom employees who remain.
It’s all well and good to claim “I get my news from twitter” but there are few events which your twitter feed covers and even then there are some limitations to capturing nuance and detail in 140 characters.
It is natural for me to fret about the loss of opinion collection and news gathering. I write down my thoughts on a weekly basis for “old media” and re-pontificate those scribblings regularly over the airwaves and the newfangled intertubes. But you should worry too.
The blogger you like to read and your favorite twitter smart aleck needs the information that he or she can react to or battle wits against. Bloviating politicians get windier when no one is there to listen to and report on their more ridiculous output. Think of the mischief they can get into if no one is watching.
Worst of all, without some poor guy just out of journalism school to take our place, we might have to attend all those meetings or read the state’s financial reports ourselves.