Not dead yet.
On an average day, the newsroom of the New York Post is scored with a low hum of murmurings and phone chimes. While the creative offices bear a tidy
sophistication, the newsroom is one corner of this expanding enterprise to have escaped maturity. Despite a recent renovation, its inhabitants have revamped their space into a tattered playground,
with newly painted walls now covered in scuffs and scratches, the chairs seemingly hand-me-downs, and handwritten signs distinguishing property and workspace. Stereotype reeks from the desks as
strongly as the remains of lunch left to spoil, with stacks of research screaming of neglect, and writers frustrated that some editor had just thrown 800 words of their 900-word story carelessly out
of the 10th floor window.
Before deadline, the tone will intensify, tension will erupt, and the lesser sides of human nature will be revealed, though only until someone declares a finish. When delays mean money, minutes are a big-ticket item, and so the screaming and flustering and fretfulness are all merely a method to get through the day in order to repeat the performance the next.
But if the newsroom hasn't changed, the state of newspapers has. And when asked what he thinks about the future of newspapers in America, one reporter who has observed the evolution, or de-evolution of newspapers over the decades, without hesitation responds: "Every parrot cage needs one."
Anyone who believes that the future of newspapers can be unlocked with the rusty key to its past has had his head in the sand and not in the news. But "dead," as they're being called these days, by most folks' definition is just too final. The argument isn't regarding the undeniable need for change, it's the degree to which they must, and the burning question: Where does change leave our beloved newspapers as we know them now?
What's somewhat unclear is the newspaper's industry's relationship to its digital doppelganger. Is this a case in which newspapers should get into bed, as they say, with what appears to be their greatest enemy? Definitely, according to Jim Kennedy, vice president and director of strategic planning at the Associated Press. Jim started the AP's Internet News Department back in the mid-1990s, and admits to being one of the many shocked to see the change in readership (thanks to the accessibility created by broadband) shift to digital so swiftly. He doesn't believe newspapers are going to fade away, but says they will have to change "radically." The AP's strategy, according to Kennedy, is to "build around a multiple-channel world, and a cross-channel audience." This means newspapers play a significant role in the world of digital news, though it would be a mistake to assume they're the foundation for any developing media model. To adapt, the AP has created a Mobile News Network, which is an application for the iPhone, providing real-time international and local news, with content from AP staff as well as member newspapers. "You've got to be where the people are," Kennedy says, adding that within the next three years, he believes that the mobile phone, home computer and flatscreen TV are all going to be intertwined, with one server managing content.
Some say it was radical for XM Radio strategist Lee Abrams to join the Chicago Tribune as its chief innovation officer, but for Abrams, the correlation is obvious synergy: "Newspapers need speed, a higher competitive drive and a fresh outlook unhampered by history or tradition that may in many respects be holding newspapers back. Winning in radio requires all of those characteristics, which can be imported into newspapers." As Abrams' title describes, he's in charge of inspiring, challenging and wrangling new media concepts, taking content to a higher level.
For Luddites and newspaper lovers alike, it's the content quandary that has many folks up in arms. Could there really ever be such an apocalyptic day when television and Internet news completely replace newspapers? James Warren, recently a managing editor at the Chicago Tribune, says that as far as Internet news is concerned, readers are getting what they pay for: headlines "ripped off from newspapers and wire services," making them a weaker source. And those who know news know the difference: "There will always be some sort of niche for intelligent summary analysis for what goes on in the world." Warren makes another point for why the Internet will never drive newspapers into extinction: the ratio of bodies to stories. "Even CNN Worldwide has a fraction of the reporters of the Chicago Tribune." He also noted that television news couldn't survive without newspapers from which to grab their stories. "Television has a large audience, but there's no self-respecting news director at a TV station that would tell you that they cover news as respectfully as a newspaper."
Teachers at Columbia University's Journalism School are aware of the importance of instituting Web-based programs for their journalists, all the while keeping watch over the credibility of content. "Our goal is to have every student become facile in the language and possibilities of online journalism during their academic year with us," says LynNell Hancock, interim vice dean at Columbia's Journalism School. In 2007, the school of journalism "webbified" its core classes: All incoming 2008 graduate students receive instruction in video and audio literacy. "Online journalism is an element that enhances our curriculum. It does not replace anything. Our emphasis on intellectual content in journalism is still paramount."
If you're reading this article right now, you probably are not one of those who believes bloggers are journalists. But the scary fact is there are many who do. John Sturm, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, agrees that while newspapers are long from extinction, changes are happening hard and fast, with content a huge factor. "Many newspapers are now asking their reporters to focus on what readers want the most - concentrated, hyperlocal coverage that news portals and others can't deliver," says Sturm, acknowledging that some newspapers are now limiting content available in its exact form online, such as stock tables. Newspaper sites are meeting readers' need for user-generated content with features such as blogs. "Having readers participate is just another way newspapers foster engagement," says Sturm.
According to Sturm, newspapers' Web sites now account for more than 9 percent of total newspaper ad revenue, and Sturm predicts that number will rise. The economy is to blame for a lot of things, but in newspapers' case, it's the current model. How does one reinvent the world's most tried and true media source? By "throwing out the rule book, liberating ourselves from the past and parking denial at the door," says Abrams. He believes that advertising isn't the main issue, but rather the circulation that needs to be built and maintained, pointing out that newspapers need to be strongly marketed. "The idea is to isolate what newspapers do, and do it better than anyone on the planet."
When Steven Fowle acquired The New Hampshire Gazette in 1989, it had been merged with the Portsmouth Herald for 29 years, existing as an obscure, gasping-for-breath, small-city daily, its status, according to Fowle, "floating in the cigarette smoke that hung in the cloud of the newsroom." Despite being the oldest newspaper in America, first published in 1754 by Fowle's third cousin five times removed, Daniel Fowle, the paper had never been trademarked. So, after "slapping down 20 bucks" and registering the name himself, Fowle admittedly "hijacked" The New Hampshire Gazette from the not-so-willowy owners of the Portsmouth Herald: Thomson Newspapers. With $30 in his pocket and an early Apple computer, Fowle picked up an 11-by-17-inch piece of paper and, well, decided to reinvent the newspaper. He started with 200 subscribers at $5 each, who would receive the large one-sheet (folded three ways) in the mail every other week.
Fowle found his advantages rested, ironically, in his lack of resources. He was going to reinvent the Gazette, he believed, in the true nature of what a newspaper should stand for: news.
The Gazette would offer a national and international perspective and, yes, even opinion: "The paper has the right, even the obligation, to take in the broad picture of anything that's going on in this country. If anyone wants to complain, they can. There was and is plenty of opinion in it. For the most part, I've given up apologizing for it." The soul of the newspaper, if you do it right, Fowle says, "is democracy. What is this nation up to? And let's ask ourselves, will we be here to read this newspaper two weeks from now?"
For the past nine years, the Gazette has existed in an eight-page tabloid format, primarily subscriber-based, printed every other Friday, with 600 subscribers today, and an additional 5,000 or so papers distributed within a 30-mile radius of Portsmouth, N.H. The Fowle family's media legacy is clearly as much a labor of love as it is the news, feeling that, indeed, commercial papers that rely on advertising are deservingly headed toward extinction. "They've taken the form of news medium that helped create this country, and, to a larger extent, are now serving as advertising for junk made in China." That said, the future of newspapers, according to Fowle, depends on the paper itself. "I think what many consider to be resources are really burdens," he says, referring to large staff and reliance on ad sales. "This is supposed to be a nation that aspires to be self-governing, and that has to be the highest priority. We're now the oldest living newspaper, and we may end up being the last."
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