National Commentary

Journalism in Transition

First, it must be recognized that the root cause of the problems currently afflicting the nation’s newspapers is not a downturn in the business cycle, but a fundamental shift in industrial civilization brought on by 6.8 billion people competing for dwindling supplies of natural resources.

Unlike a traditional downturn, this is not a problem that will cure itself with time, but a phenomenon that will require major changes is the way journalism has operated since the invention of the printing press.

In recent years, our newspapers have been supported to a great extent by the automobile, housing, financial service industries and personal ads. At present, the outlook for automobiles, housing, and finance is not good, and the internet has taken away much revenue from personal ads. All this suggests it is inevitable that print journalism, with its million of tons of wood pulp being hauled to and from printing plants each year, has a very short half-life. Newsprint consumption in the U.S. is now approaching only half of the 13 million tons that it was 20 years ago. The age of electronic journalism is upon us if for no other reason than that declining newspaper revenues will no longer be able to support the expense of procuring, printing on and distributing all that paper.

For some 15 years now, most newspapers have shared their stories on the internet, free for anyone who wanted look up their website. A handful of newspapers, and still more magazines, put their product behind “paywalls” and charged readers for access to the material as a way to increase revenue and to offset lost sales. Some allowed free access to current products, but charged for information dredged from archives.

The PC connected to the internet is now being supplemented by a variety of wireless devices which can deliver news to an array of hand-held devices such a Blackberries, iPhones, Kindles and iPads. In the midst of this information overload, however, the news-in-depth insight provided by our traditional newspapers is beginning to slip. As advertising shrinks along with the economy, the space available for editorial material in many papers is shrinking too. The very nature of the TV news format makes it unsuitable for delving in depth into many issues quickly, on-demand, and conveniently.

Another aspect, or perhaps artifact is more accurate, of print journalism is the way its resources are scattered. Large cities typically have one or more newspapers with relatively large circulations and big staffs that cover their metropolitan area as well as national and international developments. The handful of larger papers in a state or region is complimented by dozens of smaller ones that focus primarily on local developments.

Prior to the internet, papers circulated largely in their own areas, with the larger city papers usually circulating further afield to bring state, national, and international news to suburban and rural readers in so far as practicable. The API and other wire services rewrote and transmitted stories of more than local interest more widely. With the internet, all that has changed so that now any online newspaper story in the world is instantly available anywhere else in the world at little or no cost.

As the nation’s economic problems deepen, there will be an increasing need to track economic and social developments at local levels – employment, plant closings, government revenues, social problems, and perhaps someday even social unrest. This information can only be acquired locally, for no news organization has or is likely to acquire the resources to monitor and report on developments across a wide geographic area. On the other hand, people with responsibility or professional interest in the polity of a locality, state or region have a real need to absorb as much current and accurate information as possible about ongoing developments.

To make all this work and to provide the most and best information at the least cost, there is going to have to be increasing cooperation among newspapers at all levels. The good news is that cooperation is already on the increase particularly among papers with the same corporate ownership. Here in Virginia, Media General owns some 20 newspapers that are already cross-running editorial material. The Virginian-Pilot and the Roanoke Times, both owned by Landmark Media, also have started to cross-run each other’s stories.

The technical foundation is in place to make it possible for some organization to start marketing compilations of stories written by news organizations all over the state, country or world. Now that we are in the internet/wireless age, the format, frequency and delivery method of the product can be easily and inexpensively varied. For example, a customer, who would pay for the service, could choose to have information about, say, developments in school systems across the state delivered on a daily, bi-weekly or weekly basis.

Similar services could be provided for many other aspects of social or public affairs — state legislation and its impact, social services, state and local or regional politics. In short there are infinite ways that quality professional journalist-grade information could be compiled and marketed to meet the information needs of customers. Most of this material is already being written everyday; it is just a question of getting, organizing, and disseminating it in a legal and financially sound manner.

By establishing a cooperative venture, copyright issues would be subsumed by general agreement and payment for work of individual contributors. Such a process would allow the dissemination of complete stories rather than summaries with links that might soon expire. With proper agreements, disseminated stories could be archived and made available for searching and sale. A database made up of the contributions of many papers and many viewpoints should be of lasting interest to many.

While the transition of written news from delivery of paper to electronic devices may be difficult for many to accept, it is already underway. In an era of scarce resources such a transition is inevitable so that the only course left is to start planning for it.