by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
A couple of weeks ago, one of Denver’s two daily newspapers, the Rocky Mountain News, folded after nearly 150 years of continuous operation. It was done in by a convergence of several forces: the Internet, media consolidation and the current recession.
At the Rocky Mountain News, classified advertisers were largely lured away to free services like Craigslist, Ebay and Monster.com. Subscribers logged in to MSN and other news sites instead of waiting for the familiar “plop” of the afternoon paper on the front porch. And many of the display advertisers scurried away to Google, Facebook and other online advertisers who could guarantee clicks for their dollars.
Unfortunately, the Rocky Mountain News is probably just the first major paper that will fold this year. Already Hearst Corp. is talking about shutting down the San Francisco Chronicle and is limiting the online content at all of its papers in an effort to force readers to either pay for online access or purchase a paper. The Wall Street Journal has cut back its newsroom staff, and Philadelphia Newspapers LLC — which owns both The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News — just declared bankruptcy. The list of failing and faltering papers gets longer every day.
A contributing factor to the demise of these papers has been the consolidation of print media into large media corporations. These companies are driven by their stock prices and simply take too much profit out of the business, leaving little local infrastructure or reserves for weathering economic storms like our current unpleasantness.
I am not lamenting the death of the physical newspaper — a newspaper doesn’t have to be actually printed on paper to be good. In fact, although I get my Tribune delivered every night, by the time it arrives I have usually read at least part of it online, sometimes via my cell phone.
But what worries me is the death of the newsroom. Consider the fact that most of the investigative reports that are presented on TV and on Internet sites actually originate in newspaper newsrooms. This is not by coincidence. Newspapers have long provided the resources needed for investigative reporters to do their work, often on stories that, ironically, make the paper less popular with advertisers.
Several folks view the demise of the newspaper industry and the concomitant rise of online blogs as just a shift in the work force. Even here in Columbia, there are lots of local bloggers — citizen journalists, as they like to be called — who often break a story or two and serve as watchdogs on local government. Sometimes these citizen journalists are acting in the public good, but just as often they are pressing a particular issue or perspective because it fits their personal agenda. Local, regional and national blogs are great additions to the media milieu, but they are no substitute for newsroom reporting.
Why? Well, first off, bloggers are their own editors. There is a reason that reporters are not allowed to be their own editors: To have a reliable news source, the power to publish needs to be checked, and stories need to be sourced and double-checked. Granted, newspapers don’t always get stories right, but an accurate blog post is practically an oxymoron when compared with newsprint.
Second, local bloggers can’t and won’t take the risks a good newspaper publisher will take. Do you really think your neighborhood blogger will be willing and able to protect his sources when threatened with a lawsuit or jail time? If it weren’t for the publishers who stood behind their reporters and editors when threatened, many, many cases of corruption and official misconduct never would have seen the light of day.
If newspapers die, there will continue to be sources for the sensational headlines that dominate broadcast media. We’ll always have plenty of reports about Britney, Rihanna, the octuplets and so on. But will we know it when a president abuses his or her power? Or when an industry is poisoning our children? Or when those without political power are suffering? Newspapers and democracy go hand in hand. When newspapers die, the ability of the powerful to manufacture consent and controversy increases dramatically. And our democracy will suffer for it.
Like Denver, Columbia has been blessed to have two daily newspapers. The Tribune has adopted a new style and Web site in an effort to stay competitive and will no doubt be published for a long time to come.
The Columbia Missourian — which has had problems operating in the black for many years but serves primarily as a laboratory for the next generation of reporters — has cut back its printing schedule to five days a week.
Although cutting back its print edition, the Missourian is increasing its efforts in online journalism to try to figure out how good investigative reporting can thrive in the age of the Internet. Godspeed to them in their efforts.