Can newspapers survive?

By Jim Pumarlo

The phrase is familiar, “There’s nothing worse than a reformed smoker.” Here’s my version, “There’s nothing worse than a retired editor.”

The premise of this column: Editors and reporters must be well grounded in the basics of journalism if newspapers are to remain relevant. In other words, present the news in a manner that engages readers – especially in public affairs reporting.

In the interest of full disclosure, I provide news training. More important, I have a passion for community newspapers and believe they do have a role in educating and engaging the citizenry. I’ll never lose my newspaper blood after working nearly 30 years at community newspapers. My “day job” now is director of communications for a statewide business advocacy organization, and newspapers remain a prime avenue for delivering our messages.

Yes, newspapers face increased competition in the changing media landscape. Decreased revenues have resulted in cutbacks, and newsrooms unfortunately are often the first – and the hardest – hit under the premise that “reporters don’t produce revenue.” Pardon me if I put on my editor’s hat for a moment, but isn’t the vitality of a newspaper’s content the prime selling point against other media for advertising and circulation departments? Solid content is essential for growing revenues regardless of whether a story is published in print or on the web.

So it pains me to watch newspapers fall so woefully short in the basics of journalism. I‘ve seen these examples in newspapers:

  • Be timely: A well-known local legislator came out of retirement to seek his former seat. The newspaper reported the story – three days after filings closed – relying solely on a press release delivered to its office.

  • Be relevant: A Tuesday county board meeting went unreported in the Wednesday semiweekly edition; the story in the Saturday edition was strictly a chronological meeting report, wasting an opportunity to offer analysis or impact of the actions taken.

  • Be clear: A newspaper reported on the bankruptcy proceedings of its parent company. The story read, in part, “ … the agreement is with the holders of more than 75 percent of its outstanding senior subordinated notes. If the restructuring is approved, the holders of the $278.5 million in outstanding notes would exchange their existing notes for $100 million of new second lien secured notes.” Huh?

  • Be inviting: The most compelling content will go unread if headlines are dull or lack distinction. “School board discusses newsletter and snacks” gives no indication of the issues debated or votes recorded. Or one-word labels over editorials such as “Schools” or “City Hall.”

  • Be engaging: Newspapers, as a clearinghouse of information (“on” and “off” the record), are in excellent position to weigh in on issues vital to a community. Too few local editorials are written, and too many are nondescript. Ditto for editorial pages overall.

  • Be accessible: Yes, too many newspapers are still not on the web. And for many that are, the content is simply a regurgitation of the print edition – a terrible underutilization of the technology available.

Such lapses in reporting can be found in many parts of many newspapers. My particular passion, however, is public affairs.

OK, call me a dinosaur from the days when newspapers placed public affairs reporting at the forefront of their missions. I hear the arguments that today’s readers want to be entertained rather than educated. But how much of that is due to the fact that newspapers are falling down on the job themselves? Editors and publishers need to look in the mirror to see if they are providing the resources to deliver a compelling news product.

I remember fondly two experiences when I sat behind the editor’s desk – when we strived to make public affairs interesting and relevant to readers.

The newspaper led an editorial campaign to unseat four incumbents in their re-election bid to the city council. Fresh voices filled the letters column, and all four were unceremoniously retired. Among the most gratifying comments came from a staff member at the YMCA. To paraphrase: “I used to first turn to the sports pages. Now I turn to the editorial page.”

And this comment from an advertiser after the newspaper carried an expose on the local economic development director. To paraphrase: “Let me know the next time you’re going to carry such a big story. I want my ad in that edition.”

These stories are still doable. They take work, and that’s especially challenging in newsrooms operating with diminished resources. These stories will not be accomplished, however, without the support of management willing to invest the time and money to train editors and reporters. Most important, I believe these stories are essential to the livelihood of community newspapers.

© Jim Pumarlo 2010

Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on Community Newsroom Success Strategies. He is author of “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper.” You can contact him at http://www.pumarlo.com.

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