Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Are the newspapers doomed? Probably

I’ve had a lot of time of late to think about journalism and its future. Today’s announcement that the Detroit News and Free Press will cut back printing and delivery is the beginning of the end for the big-city print newspaper, I strongly believe.

As usual, it’s being pitched in the Detroit News as “innovative,” “dramatic,” “exciting,” “unique” and so on.

As we said when I was a teenager: “Yeah, right.”

The readers are promised a better news product, more stories, more, more, more. But they’re getting less – a lot less — and staffers from the newsroom to the pressroom are going to lose their jobs at those papers. All in the name of “more.”

Personally, I don’t buy it.

I worked for a newspaper, the Boca Raton News, that got smaller seemingly every day. The TV book got smaller. The comics got smaller. Reporters and editors left and were not replaced. Events weren’t covered. And each withdrawal of the paper from the community was hailed as the harbinger of a new and improved newspaper that was, in fact, getting closer to the community.

That’s called “spin.” Like a lot of people at the Boca Raton News, I got so dizzy I left when the publisher announced an “exciting” new development. He was buying the paper from its owner, which had itself overseen dramatic reductions in coverage.

Bu-bye.

So I moved to other papers, and watched their exciting innovations, which cut coverage. It seemed like right after I arrived, the paper downsized and cut back while claiming to expand.

Finally, like many people in the business, I had to leave my newspaper and not voluntarily. Still, I left as a professional and with my pride intact. Consider this: I was the last newsperson in the building on my final night, and was the desker assigned to update the Web site. I did it right and I did it well. I know I am missed there.

But will newspapers be missed? Will people 20 years from now walk out in the morning, pick up a pile of paper in a plastic bag, bring it in, separate the sections and spread it out on the table, and read the news of their town, city, state, nation and world? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe big papers like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post will be the last of their breed, but the smaller papers will be gone and will exist as Web sites.

But I think what will not go away is the demand and need for good, intense and searching local news, and that’s why I’m trying to be optimistic about the future of journalism and still believe that I have a few good years left in this business.

Here in Florida, newspapers have exposed corrupt politicians and unethical business people, and made life better for millions of people. Newspapers have fought hard for open government; in this state, we call them the Government-in-the-Sunshine Laws. Meetings have to take place in public, with the media watching closely, and government officials have to be very careful to not discuss public business outside the framework of a public meeting, and have gotten in trouble for doing so.

This hasn’t stopped all government corruption, but believe me it has made the government fear the media, and exposed and prevented lots of “sweetheart deals” from taking place in government contracting.

Although I rarely had anything to do with some of its best exposures, I was proud that my former paper was at the forefront of exposing the misconduct in government and business. The paper took its lumps, mostly from those who were written about, but it was a point of pride that it was able to take on the powerful and tell the people what they needed to know.

But that’s in the past. What of the future?

Maybe the time has come to seriously look at separating the “news” from the “paper.” The reality is that local newspapers’ business models are dying. Part of it is the ongoing economic recession and huge cuts in consumer spending and advertising, but part is that the logistics and costs of dropping paper in someone’s driveway is prohibitive. If you’ve ever seen a newspaper printing plant, you can see that a lot of money went somewhere. I’m not saying it was wasted, but in the future such infrastructure may have to give way to a better, faster, less expensive means of distribution.

When I first saw the World Wide Web, I was a college journalism student in the mid-1990s. I was doing a story on the computer network on campus at Florida Atlantic University, and someone in the computer department took me in her office and showed me Mosaic, the first Web browser. I kind of had a feeling that this was something different from DOS command-line operations and more like what America Online was offering, and that it had a ton of potential.

People then still trained to work in print journalism, and for their writing to appear in a newspaper, but it soon became clear that there would be a new way to bring news to the people.

Just as when offset printing replaced hot type, the consequences for many people who work in the old technology are devastating. Heck, I was an eager embracer of all things new in the newsroom, and it didn’t stop me from losing my job, so it’s not just an academic exercise for me. I may never work in a newsroom again, though I will always want great journalism to continue.

Will it?

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December 16, 2008 - Posted by | The news business | , , , , , , , ,

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