Three hundred daily newspapers in the United States have gone out of business in the last 25 years. Several others have stayed alive by consolidating with a larger paper in the same town, but while they say their reporting and editorials are still independent, they are wrong.
Circulation has been dropping for 18 years because young people are getting what they call their news from bloggers, the Internet, free alternative weeklies, TV and radio. They don’t have a newspaper thrown on their doorstep, making it almost certain that their kids won’t read newspapers when they grow up. In 1990, 62.4 percent of Americans read a daily newspaper. Last year? Only 54 percent.
Advertisers know about this and are pulling away from daily newspapers. Automobile ads have always been in daily newspapers, and now as you must have noticed they have slipped away to television. Even classified ads are moving away — to the Internet where Google and other outfits take the ads for free. To compete, some of the big newspapers are now giving away classified ads.
Since I have spent my life working on newspapers, I am worried that one of these days there won’t be daily newspapers anywhere except in 10 or 20 of the nation’s biggest cities. The other day I dropped in on the journalism department where I went to school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville nearly 60 years ago and talked to a couple of students and one of the professors, Gerald Jordan, a native of Benton who for many years was a fine reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
To my surprise, neither the students nor the professor were as worried as I am. Locally owned, independent newspapers with good reporters are the only way that Americans can know whether our public officials are doing the right things in the right way ...
Jordan’s worries were that if the small daily papers kept going out of business there wouldn’t be places for his students to go to work in the summer as interns or when they graduate and need a job. The big-city newspapers will still take summer interns, but they always take the kids from the big journalism schools like the University of Missouri, Northwestern, Columbia, etc. The big papers won’t be hiring, however, because they are already cutting down their staffs, he said. The Inquirer recently had to let about 75 newsroom employees go.
The students I talked to were Christopher Vincent, who is from Berryville and is the editor of the four-days-a-week Arkansas Traveler, and Jeff Winkler of Fayetteville, one of the Traveler’s reporters. Neither of them seemed worried about the future of newspapers. For one reason, they are going to leave the country after graduating. Winkler plans to travel around the world (he’s already spent six months in India), and Vincent is going to marry a Tulane girl from Chile, and they plan to live in some other South American country that is more liberal than Chile.
Winkler is not really interested in newspapers; he thinks he might want to write for magazines. He likes Vanity Fair and Playboy (“good writing and good pictures, too”). He thinks TV is “the devil of journalism.” Vincent thinks likewise about TV news but likes the PBS documentaries. Vincent says he might teach communications or maybe work on the kind of newspaper that he likes if he finds one.
What kind is this? From what both of them said it seems to be a paper: (1) that has writers who use ordinary words the same way that people actually talk, (2) will not attempt to unify their readers like they say the Wall Street Journal does, (3) will print more local news rather than Washington news and (4) will have fewer editorials and more columns.
What’s wrong with editorials? Winkler: “I don’t read them. They are shabby, friendly in baby-school talk and a lot of just BS.”
Vincent: “I don’t read editorials much and I read columnists a lot. Editorial writers are so far from what they write about that they might as well be anybody on the street writing them. All the editorial writers know is what was in their paper, so why [are they] writing editorials? Paul Greenberg [editor of the editorial page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette] is a good writer and sometimes makes some good points, but most of the time the editorials just want to make the liberals angry and the conservatives self-righteous.”
Then he said that he didn’t read or listen to the bloggers. He smiled and said: “Maybe paper isn’t the best format. I get a lot of news off the Internet, even some local stories. To me it makes sense.”
And Winkler also said he enjoyed reading newspapers on the Internet. “But Tom Friedman is my favorite writer. He’s more a journalist than a pundit, if you know what I mean. If he wants to write about Lebanon, he flies to Lebanon and talks to the people.”