“Sorry, we used to sell them.”
That was the response from a clerk at Brown University Bookstore.
Do you sell newspapers?
She just affirmed what I have been fearing. The newspaper is disappearing. If people aren’t buying them, they will die. If stores aren’t selling them, people can’t buy them – and they will die.
We all lose when this happens. The United States of America was founded on certain key principles and freedoms. A free press is the backbone of a nation – but what happens when the watchful eye and creative editorial aren’t there to keep society in check? Where do we go to learn what’s happening in our own neighborhood?
When a leading university, a place of knowledge and learning, fails to nurture the next generation by not selling newspapers at its store, it’s failing our young minds. The lack of newspapers there is an indictment against the traditional media. The school is saying the newspaper is no longer important, useful, or interesting. It’s keeping students in the dark.
Now I know others will be quick to say that people can find news online. Or on TV. Or radio. But a newspaper is different. It’s written by professionals who know and care about the community of readers for which it serves. Online sources like bloggers and podcasters, typically unpaid and untrained in journalism, can’t make up the gap left by a traditional daily newspaper. Other online sources are mostly national, like foxnews.com, and nytimes.com, or international like bbc.com.
The New York Times, in a special section dedicated to the absence of local journalism (August 4th), showed some troubling statistics.
• Over 200 counties lack a newspaper period -- whether daily or weekly, a news vacuum that impacts 3.2 million residents. 2,000 counties lack a daily newspaper.
• Over the last 15 years, 2,100 local newspapers – or roughly one fourth of all newsrooms – have either merged with a competitor or ceased printing, including The Rocky Mountain News and The Cincinnati Post.
• Since 2004, California has lost the most dailies. It closed 30, including The Oakland Tribune which ended a 142-year-run.
• Total circulation of dailies and weeklies went from 122 million in 2004 to 70 million today.
• About 6,800 local newspapers continue to run in America, but many are shells of their former selves, with pared down staffs, smaller coverage areas, and thinner editions.
• Despite digital start-ups seeking to fill the media void, some 1300 communities now have no local news coverage at all.
• The largest 25 newspaper chains own a third of all local newspaper claims own a third of all local newspapers, including two-thirds of the daily papers. In fact, Gate House Media, a large newspaper chain, just bought Gannett, an even larger newspaper chain that includes USA Today.
• The Village Voice, The Tampa Tribune, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and other century-old publications have gone under this millennium.
So what’s the solution?
I think it’s partly a PR thing. Newspapers need to make a better case for themselves. Show why they are needed. Show why digital is not the same experience and why there’s a void that papers fill. But the problem now is cost. Newspapers, because they lack ads, charge $2 or more for a daily copy. Everyone else settles for what’s free online. To compound things, newspapers are thin and flimsy. They used to be 100 pages long, thick and busting with content. Now they are rags.
Newspapers need to be subsidized. It can’t be the government – too many political pressures over coverage and it can pull funding at any time.
Could a billionaire save journalism? Again, too many conflicts with that.
The New York Times is championing a national service-type program, much like Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, where volunteers and non-profits can help fill the gap.
Charles Sennott, co-founder of Report for America and chief executive of Ground Truth Project, says the crisis in local journalism is catastrophic and that “the disintegration of community journalism leads to greater polarization, lower voter turnout, more pollution, less trust and less government accountability.”
His organization recruits talented reporters, raises funds, and helps place them at entry level salaries across the country. So far 61 reporters operate in 50 newsrooms across 30 states and Puerto Rico. 250 reporters will be placed in 2020. The goal is to hit 1,000.
Of course, newspapers are not only for acting as a watchdog on community power brokers and government officials. They stimulate the mind, inspire people, and add a quality of life to the community. They also help sell books and act as a logical feeder for educated readers with disposable income.
Books have their own challenges and a lack of newspapers does not help their survival. Books must help fill the void and seek, more than ever, to entertain, empower, inspire, enlighten, and educate the world.
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