Newspapers are Dying; Journalism We Hope Is Not

Last night I attended the weekly meeting of the Sedgwick County Pachyderm Club to hear guest speaker Davis “Buzz” Merritt, former editor of the Wichita Eagle. I’d read and reviewed his book Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy At Risk (my review is here).

His talk was based on the Knightfall book, which is to say it paints a somewhat grim picture of the present state of newspapers and newspaper journalism. It’s important to distinguish between the type of journalism that newspapers do, as compared to journalism from other sources such as television. Newspaper journalism doesn’t necessarily have to be delivered in the traditional newspaper printed on the fibers of dead trees, but it’s important to democracy that this form of journalism survives.

One point I learned last night is that not all of the operations of a newspaper have to be carried over to the Internet. Only 25% does, says Mr. Merritt. The remaining, I believe, is costs such as printing and distribution that won’t apply to an Internet-based delivery model.

Those costs of printing and distribution are large. In the late 1990s, when the Wichita Eagle needed to increase its profit contribution to its parent corporation from 20% to 22.5%, it accomplished that goal by canceling the distribution of 10,000 daily newspapers to western Kansas. This was a profitable business move, but hardly one that advanced journalism.

It’s well-known that young people don’t read newspapers very much, and that’s one source of newspapers’ problems. I asked if maybe young people don’t appreciate and value the type of journalism that newspapers practice. Mr. Merritt replied that he believes they do value it, if it affects them.

A few in the audience expressed how reading on the computer screen is not pleasant. I would suggest to these people to check their equipment and its adjustments. For CRT monitors (the old-fashioned tube-style monitors), there’s a setting usually known as “refresh rate” which if set incorrectly, causes flicker. That’s definitely annoying and can cause headaches. Many people also have old monitors that are simply too small, or are set to use such a low resolution, that not much material can be seen on the screen at one time. For LCD panel users, there are also adjustments that are critical for a good viewing experience. With good equipment, which doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive, the experience of reading on the computer can be much improved.

4 Comments

  • Another promising venture in journalism, particularly for (relatively) young guys like myself, is the non-profit model that’s being used by http://www.propublica.org. The recent upstart has lured some of the nation’s top investigative journalists to pursue the type of in-depth, probing reporting that many people feel is disappearing nationwide. ProPublica offers its content to newspapers (such as the recent USA Today centerpiece on problems with Federal Air Marshals http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2008-11-12-air-marshals_N.htm.)

    I’d argue, perhaps with some bias since I’m part of the industry, that newspapers still produce a lot of solid, revealing stories. But smaller staffs certainly make that more difficult. Hopefully, the internet and some new journalism models can help maintain the written information flow because, without it, we’d know far less about the world around us.

  • Journalistic ethics is dead! and more and more readers are receiving their news from alternative sources because readers want to be educated not indoctrinated. Editorial writers continue to write editorials as news and sometimes as investigating reports.

  • Paul Soutar -

    “Journalism” under any delivery mechanism will continue its accelerating ride into irrelevance so long as “journalists” continue to believe they are smarter than the rest of us and that their perspectives are the only correct ones. I’ve been watching ProPublica and applaud their shedding the hobbles of corporate profit requirements that paralyze traditional media. It would be far better though if they removed the blinders that limit their perspectives and practice some diversity, not the skin deep kind found in traditional newsrooms but the heart-felt, thoughtful kind that might lead to something other than screeds against the evil Bush and endless praises of the least evaluated presidential candidate in modern history.

  • Paul, thank you for your insight. Not only are these so called journalist smarter than us, but they are also less tolerant of other points of view.

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