Once upon a time, having a job at a newspaper meant working in one of the most imposing buildings in town ... For those of us old enough to remember those days, National Newspaper Week 2019 could be one big, fat elegiac nostalgia trip.
My hometown had three daily newspapers when I was a kid. Now it’s down to one that shows up in print just three days a week. Youngstown, Ohio just became the first major American city without any newspaper at all ... upwards of 1,300 communities that had newspapers of their own in 2004 now have none.
But ... real newshounds are about the now and the next. Our job has always been to help our communities recognize the today’s challenges of today and turn them into the tomorrow’s promise. The future of democracy is inextricably bound up with the future of a free press.
So here, dear readers, are some facts you need to know:
• Newspapers are more than a medium. Increasingly, for both younger and older readers, ink is being replaced by bits and bytes that light up your phone or tablet or computer. What can’t be replaced, however, and what should never be made obsolete is the primary function(of) newspapers: Deploying small armies of reporters, photographers and editors to find and produce stories on everything from natural disasters to political scandals to your neighbor’s golden wedding anniversary, to catch the mistakes before they make it into print and to correct them when they do (hey, we’re human).
• You never paid for news That 25 or 35 cents you used to plunk into a newspaper box didn’t came close to covering what it cost to produce news. The high cost of public service journalism has always been subsidized by advertisers. And the big dogs in the economic equation were not the car dealers or department stores who bought those big, full-page displays. At most newspapers, classified ads produced the lion’s share of revenues.
The internet broke that model. Newspaper advertising revenue has nosedived to levels that are less than one-third of what they were in 2005 ... The result is newspapers employed fewer than half the number of people in 2016 that they did at the beginning of this century ...
• Social media is not news. And it’s not free
Readers might not notice the hollowing out of newsrooms because today, we have, if anything, too much information at our disposal.
The same digital revolution that blew a hole in newsroom budgets and turned Craigslist and eBay into advertising behemoths also created new paths to publication ... more Americans now get their news from social media than from newspapers.
But not everyone who’s publishing via smartphone and YouTube is a promising writer or videographer giving voice to underserved communities. A lot are peddlers of propaganda, snake oil, disinformation and dissension.
Nor is social media as free as it seems: We pay by providing our personal data every time we log on and, often, every time we make a purchase. Social media sites deliver information that’s likely to keep you on their sites: It’s a recipe for never having your received opinions challenged or your mind changed.
You can do something about this. I’m not arguing that we should turn off the internet and replace it with ink and paper. What I do think readers can do this National Newspaper Week is become more mindful about their information diet.
There are still plenty of sources of whole-grain news out there. Some are non-profit news organizations; some are web start-ups to fill the gap left when legacy media outlets folded. And some are those legacy outlets trying hard to find new revenue streams.
Here are some ways to recognize purveyors of real news: Do they sometimes rais(e) doubts about what you thought to be true? Is it easy for you to reach a real human being if you have a question or a complaint? Do they correct their mistakes? Do they ask you to subscribe or donate?
Yes, supporting real news is a more expensive proposition than it used to be, but it’s cheap when you consider what you’re really paying for.
As journalism professor Al Cross put in a bumper sticker he had commissioned a couple years back, “Support democracy: Subscribe.”
Kathy Kiely is the Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a veteran reporter and editor with a multimedia portfolio and a passion for transparency, free speech and teaching. After a long career covering politics in Washington, Kiely moved into the classroom full-time because, she says, universities are the laboratories that will discover the formula for making fact-based journalism viable again.