Gallery H

Closing Their Doors

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Fate Of American Newspapers A Growing Crisis

By James Donahue

It is no secret that newspapers are dying. After years of falling circulation, the current recession is having its impact. Advertising revenues are falling off, reporters and staff workers are facing layoff and pay cuts. And one-by-one, major newspapers across the nation are shuttering their windows.

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs noted in a recent press meeting that the White House is concerned about the crisis hitting the industry, but is not considering a financial bail-out. “I don’t know what, in all honesty, government can do about it,” he said.

Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, said he is concerned that “traditional journalistic standards on fairness and accuracy could suffer as newspapers falter.”

Kerry and Gibbs, like all older newsmen and women in the field, understand that government cannot and must not own and control the press. In a free and democratic society, a working and viable news media must serve as an objective watchdog over government, and never be subject to its control.

The American media has been showing signs of faltering in recent years. Arianna Huffington, editor and founder of the online news site The Huffington Post, noted at a recent Senate hearing on this issue that reporters missed the two biggest stories of the last decade; the false lead-up to the Iraq War and the collapsing economy.  

We believe the newspapers and now even the television media are in trouble because they have forgotten this important role. With unscrupulous wealthy characters like Rupert Murdock seizing control of not only Fox News but now buying up many major newspaper and television chains, the clowns have taken over. Objectivity has been lost. Our news is now becoming so blatantly slanted either to the left or right, that people are becoming polarized. Our nation is polarized. We need our grand old newspapers back but it may be too late to save them.

As a long-standing American journalist who cut his teeth on hot lead linotype machines, flat-bed printing presses and four-by-five Speed Graph cameras and writing copy in his head while on the telephone with a typist from a news scene, I think I know what happened. And I think I knew exactly when and where things began going wrong for the newspaper industry. And I, like Gibbs, don’t know what can be done about it.

I broke into the business because I loved to write and could find no other vocation that attracted me as much as newspaper reporting and writing. I majored in English Literature and Journalism in college. It was there, and the training I received while working under the wing of Bert Lindenfeldt, the managing editor of the old News Palladium at Benton Harbor, Michigan, where I developed my understanding of the roles newspapers played in the local, state and national political spectrum.

Our job as news reporters was to go out into the field, observe events, and then write the story. The stories were always supposed to inform readers what we observed in as objective a means as possible. There was an old check-list used by every reporter in the field. It was simple. Every story was expected to answer the questions: Who, What, Where, When, and if we could get the information, Why and How?

That list worked fine when it came to simple stuff like police reporting, fires, ground breakings, parades and covering most human events in the community. But when it came to government reporting, things got more complicated. We couldn’t simply cover all of the ramifications and political maneuvering that went on during school board, city council, county board and road commission meetings by simply calling somebody and asking questions. And we saw these events as perhaps the most important part of our duty to keep our readers informed. But to do it right, we discovered that we had to be there. And there were so many meetings like this to cover, we found ourselves working nearly every night, and having to choose which were the most important from a list of them to attend.

As the years rolled by the young editors coming out of the colleges and universities seemed to have a lot of different ideas about news. There was pressure to put less emphasis on routine meetings of government boards and to spend more time writing bright human-interest feature stories. The paper felt in competition with television news networks like CNN. This is the point where I think we got off course.

Eventually we had an editor who decided that all staffers would devote all of their time writing about police and other major news events and lots of human interest stories. Nobody was allowed to attend government meetings of any kind. We were instructed to call regularly on meetings held the previous night and write a brief one or two-paragraph “roundup” listing motions passed and action taken. The briefs were listed on the inside pages under a one-column headline that said either “News In Brief” or “Meetings.” Suddenly all activities of government were no longer the focus of our newspaper. I noticed that other newspapers were doing the same thing. I worried that we were making a very big mistake.

We began having regular staff meetings, sometimes once a week. I distinctly remember one staff meeting when we were all sitting around a large table with the editors and the publisher. The publisher, who also was new since they also rotated frequently, went down the line that day, asking every person in the room their opinion why our newspaper was losing circulation. He wanted fresh ideas for turning things around.

When it was my turn I spoke my mind. To paraphrase, I told them we were getting in trouble because we are no longer reporting the important news that local people want to know. We were writing what I called “fluff” human interest stories and ignoring the fact that the city council is raising water and sewer rates, or that large parcels of property in a community were in danger of being rezoned to make room for a proposed strip mall.

I told the publisher and the editors that day that I had four children at home who did not read our newspaper. Even though I wrote stories that appeared in the newspaper every day, they were not interested in what we had to say. The publisher thanked me for my comments and went on to the next person in the row.

Looking back, it may have been that people in high places within the Gannett operation knew what I knew, but they also knew the changing mindset that was bearing down on America like a freight train. Because of the constant barrage of short, sharp news jabs on CNN and later FOX and MSNBC and BBC networks, and the advent of news blogs on the Internet, we all have gone through a major paradigm shift in the way we use our brains to collect and assimilate information. The people high in the Gannett chain of command either saw this, or it was a subconscious act. They were moving against the grain and changing the newspaper so it might best adapt to a new generation of potential readers.

In a sense we were both correct in our assessment of the problem. Newspapers needed to continue digging to get the real news of events impacting readers, but writers had to learn how to tell their stories in tight, crisp sentences. Most readers never go beyond the headlines and perhaps the first or second paragraphs of any story. The days of writing long, detailed stories . . . even featured reports reaching beyond the daily news . . . appear to be over.

That daily newspaper is still in existence as I write these words, which pleases me because I receive a monthly retirement check and still get the benefit of some health insurance from the chain. And Gannett did something very smart in those days when it launched U.S.A. Today, a daily newspaper that includes news briefs of events occurring all across the nation. It is a paper that people can scan quickly over breakfast or on a bus, subway or train on their way to work. It fits the new lifestyle where people get their news on the run and rarely take time to read their way through a complete news story. As I see it, U.S.A. Today is still holding its own.

We notice the weekly newspapers are still publishing, although they are also struggling through these current economic times. That is because people still want to know things about their community, like who died, who got married, who had a new baby, and what their city council and school board is up to. They also like to read the weekly grocery ads to see what is on sale and look for coupons.

We cannot support a bill by Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland that would utilize federal tax dollars to keep newspapers afloat if they choose tax-exempt status and operate in a non-profit status. This would exclude papers from making political endorsements and offering political opinions on editorial pages. Advertisers would be classified as contributors and money spent also would be tax exempt.

Huffington told the Senate committee that she still has high hopes for American journalism. She said she believes it is struggling through a period of transition from print to electronic publishing. In the end, she foresees a bright future for the industry. We hope she is right.