Is the death knell of newspapers around the corner?

Cross Currents: A column by Bill Christopher
Posted 12/5/19

We have all seen, read and heard about the fate of newspapers in America. Right here in the Denver metro area we have seen the demise of the Rocky Mountain News, the cancerous shrinkage of the Denver …

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Is the death knell of newspapers around the corner?

Posted

We have all seen, read and heard about the fate of newspapers in America. Right here in the Denver metro area we have seen the demise of the Rocky Mountain News, the cancerous shrinkage of the Denver Post and the challenges confronting suburban weekly newspapers.

Obviously, it is a new day, considering how younger folks get their daily news compared to us older folks who still like to have the newspaper in our hands. We were just back in the Kansas City area and I picked up a copy of the Kansas City Star which is the daily newspaper I grew up with. It has shrunk more in content and size than our Denver Post. Plus, I can recall the days when we received both a morning version of the Kansas City Times and an evening version, the Kansas City Star.

I am sure you can quote similar stories about the newspapers you were familiar with where you grew up.

The important role of newspapers

An interesting story in The Washington Post caught my eye last week about the topic of local (both metropolitan dailies and suburban weeklies) newspapers and their plight. First, it is imperative to make the point that local journalism still matters in our society and our democracy. In fact, it is critical to support and uphold our democracy by keeping an informed public of what government at all levels is doing or attempting to do.

Some would say we in America are at a crisis point, with the continued decline of daily and weekly newspapers, while we have government antics at their worse.

The drama around Russia’s interference in the 2016 Presidential election continues even today. Now, we have the Ukraine fiasco embroiling President Trump, his fixer/personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and others attempting to interject personal vendettas into foreign government policy matters.

Or we could point out the breaking news about the Baltimore Mayor’s indictment. Perhaps Jeffrey Epstein would not have gotten caught with his sexual predator tactics if it weren’t for the local journalism of the Miami Herald.

November 2019 may prove to have been pivotal to newspapers

Newspapers play a critical role in informing the electorate while at the same time being the “watchdog” of government.

University of Missouri journalism professor Tom Warhover posed the somber question “Will we point back to November 2019 as the `day the music died’ for the news industry?”

He was referring to the merger of two major newspaper chains. Gannett and Gatehouse are now one and intend to cut their combined budget by at least $300 million.

That debilitating decision is on top of unending job cuts that span the past decade in the affected newsrooms of more than 500 newspapers. Also, the McClatchy newspaper group, which is the parent company of the Miami Herald and the Charlotte Observer, is coping with too much debt and pension obligations which may end in bankruptcy.

And just recently, the Chicago Tribune came under the influence of Alden Global Capital which is a hedge fund that has “strip-mined” the other important papers it owns — including the Denver Post and the San Jose Mercury News.

Ghost newspapers, news deserts and under-informed communities

We know all too well what Alden Global Capital has done to the Denver Post with significant cuts in staff, reduced coverage, the elimination of locally focused editorials and much more.

Ken Doctor, who wrote an analysis of what has been occurring for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, stated it well — “The old world is over and the new one—one of ghost newspapers, news deserts and under-informed communities is headed straight for us.”

It was pointed out that more than 2,000 local newspapers (mostly weeklies) have gone out of business over the past 15 years. Furthermore, it was noted that many of the newspapers that remain are phantoms of their former selves with only a few reporters and editors to cover entire metropolitan areas.

New approaches are imperative

In light of these challenging times, new ideas are being tried to provide support to newspapers. For example, across America, many non-profit news organizations have evolved to help fill the gap. The oldest and most successful example of this approach is the Texas Tribune in Austin. It will join forces with ProPublica, the highly respected digital investigative journalism organization, to help bolster its state government coverage.

One study concluded that a “major new infusion of public and private investments” is needed to provide a more secure financial footing. Foundations such as the Miami-based Knight Foundation are providing money to local journalism. Also, individual philanthropists have financially helped some newspapers. The Salt Lake Tribune is an example of this approach and now is a non-profit news organization.

However, the scale of the problem is difficult to absorb.

Another strategy we have seen used involving Denver suburban weekly newspapers is consolidation. Colorado Community Media, which owns and manages The Westminster Window and Northglenn-Thornton Sentinel, has succeeded in cost reduction and production efficiencies via consolidation.

The future looks cloudy

It almost goes without saying, “the times they are a-changing” as Bob Dylan wrote many years ago.

With the onset of the Internet and social media, printed news is always behind in “getting the word out.” However, printed news continues to provide in-depth reporting which can be read in a hard copy format or on-line along with news organizations that provide in-depth reporting. The nagging question is how long will people continue to want to have a hard copy newspaper to read and at what cost? Also, will the younger generations be interested in being informed about local, national and international news on a daily basis? Clearly, the printed news industry is faced with numerous challenges.

Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.

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