Monday, April 09, 2007

Have Newspapers Reached Their Deadline?

Have Newspapers Reached Their Deadline?

(CBS) There was a time when the only way to find out what was happening was to buy a newspaper, but these days there are plenty of ways to get your news. Lynne Taylor doesn't go any further than her couch to catch up on current events. She gets some news from radio and TV, but when she wants to read, it's all online. "I'm checking to see what's going on in the world now and online makes me feel like I've got a real 'now' as opposed to paper 'now,' [which] is yesterday," Taylor, a Ph.D. student, told Sunday Morning correspondent Rita Braver.

In a way, Taylor is every editor's nightmare. It's in large part because of younger people like her that newspapers are in turmoil today. Papers across the country have been or may be sold, with workers laid off as well. Major advertising revenue for many papers is down, too, and classified ads are increasingly being placed on Internet sites.

In fact, newspaper circulation in the United States has been falling for two decades, from a high of 63 million in 1984 to 53 million or less today. Editor and publisher of the Chattanooga Times Free Press Tom Griscom is fighting to keep the Tennessee paper solvent and relevant with new focus on local news. The paper is a combination of two newspapers which merged nine years ago because of declining readership. "We've got a total of 40 reporters that cover sports, lifestyle and of course the news side," he said. "We're telling them that story about Medicare and children and what it's doing to children here, rather than the fact that President Bush sat down and made a, you know, the latest announcement."

And like most papers now, the Chattanooga Times Free Press is not just about what's in print. In fact, at the top of the paper there is an ad for the paper's Web site. "Because that's the deal," Griscom said, "if you want to follow us throughout the day, go to the Web site 'cause we're gonna be posting breaking news." In fact, Braver was there on a big news day; Chattanooga had just lost out on a new Toyota plant. She followed reporter Mike Pare as he headed out to cover the latest developments.

He said he would file a couple of stories on the plant that day. Those Internet stories will come in addition to the longer piece Pare will file for the next morning's paper. Everyone at the Times Free Press is well aware of predictions that printed papers are dead or dying. Rising paper prices have led some papers, like the Wall Street Journal, to shrink (literally).

In addition, although e-readers now are just for books, companies like Plastic Logic in England are developing small wireless devices, called E-paper, which will mean we won't ever have to carry real paper around to read the news. But Griscom's not ready to give in. "We will progress way far ahead, no doubt about it," he said. "But I'm not predicting there will not be ink on paper. I just don't — I mean, I don't know."

There is uncertainty about the Internet, too. Griscom said the paper hasn't started making much money off their Web site yet. "We make some, but it's not gonna be anywhere near the print product," he said. "We're understanding a little bit better how the Internet works, how it interacts with what we're doing." Samir Husni, chairman of the journalism department at the University of Mississippi, is a world-renowned expert on print journalism. He says that what is killing newspapers is not that people have forsaken print, but that papers have become too predictable. He cautions newspapers against putting too much faith in their Internet operations. "Every couple of years we seem to go through a cycle — print is dead, print is dead," he said. "Anybody who is realistic will know that we will have printed paper products from now 'til eternity."

"When was the last time you were surprised by a front page story in a newspaper?" he added. "When was the last time you said: 'Wow!'? Let me give you an example: Sunday, few weeks ago was the Super Bowl, everybody knew the Colts won. What were the headlines, almost no exceptions? 'Colts win Super Bowl.' Big surprise!" "If I read the newspaper, if I pick up the magazine, what's in it for me?" Husni says that newsmagazines are suffering even more than newspapers. Each of the so-called Big Three are seeing decreases in advertising and steady circulation drops over the past 20 years, and staff reductions. It is easy to see why, talking to Husni's students. "It's not as immediate," Jason Katavitz said. "They come out weekly at best." Husni says that whether in print or online, traditional newspapers and magazines have to do a better job of showing how their stories relate to readers. "We are seeing an upswing in terms of the alternative newspapers that are coming to town, in terms of the alternative magazines that are coming to town they can relate to.

They feel, 'It's my grandfather's newspaper, my father's newspaper, I'm not going to relate to it — I want something for me.'" The editors of The Politico, dedicated to intensive political coverage, agree. John Harris and Jim VandeHei think they've found the new way. They both left top jobs covering politics at the Washington Post to found Politico, which launched just last month.

It's a hybrid: There's a paper edition three times a week. But unlike traditional newspapers, it's the Web site that drives the paper — complete with videos and all kinds of blogs. "We're gonna be more conversational, more irreverent, we hope more 'insider,'" Harris said. For example, this past week, the day after the Scooter Libby trial, most newspapers led with the verdict. The Politico, having given the details the day it happened, was busy speculating on the future.

But won't something be missed if traditional newspapers disappear? "You know, I'm still very sentimental about that, at the same time, I've actually grown to become a platform agnostic," VandeHei said. "I don't care if I'm reading it on paper, if I'm reading it online. I just want smart news, smart analysis, and I want to be able to read it and think about it when I want to." Which seems to suggest that newspapers and magazines must look at changes in reading habits not as a death knell but as a challenge "The danger is that you cling to a past and that inhibits you from being creative enough and aggressive enough, bold enough, optimistic enough to embrace all of these new opportunities," Harris said.


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