William Endicott

Viewpoints: We need newspapers to stick to what they do best

Published: Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 5E
Last Modified: Friday, Jul. 19, 2013 - 9:55 pm

What if we could take all the news that floats around on the Internet, social media and 24-hour news channels, filter out the misinformation, package it in an easy-to-read format and deliver it to your doorstep early every morning?

We could add some comics, local sports coverage, a few features, some classified ads and grocery coupons. We could call it a newspaper.

I'd like to claim credit for that thought, but it is similar to a comment once made by journalist and author Walter Isaacson. It came to mind when I read this week that revenue and circulation are down at the Washington Post, as they are at other major newspapers.

That follows the news several weeks ago that two more newspapers – the Syracuse, N.Y., Post Standard and the Harrisburg Patriot News in Pennsylvania's state capital – are ceasing daily publication.

The two papers are joining the New Orleans Times-Picayune in becoming the first big-city American dailies to switch to only three days a week. All are owned by the Newhouse Newspapers, which also owns the Portland Oregonian and several other dailies.

All in all it's a sad, but I suppose inevitable, turn of events, and those cities will be the poorer for it.

There are always the usual assurances from newspaper executives that a reduction in staff or the number of publication days will produce no diminution in the quality of journalism, and that websites will pick up the slack from the decline of the print product.

But don't try telling that to all the editors and reporters around the country who have been caught in newsroom layoffs and buyouts over the past few years.

I admit to being a newspaper junkie. I grew up in a home where two, sometimes three, daily newspapers were a fact of life, and I've always seen them as the best unifying, consistent and reliable source in any community.

New media advocates will argue that newspaper websites will provide just as much, if not more, than readers are getting in their daily print product.

But my fear is that once readers move to the Internet exclusively, they will gravitate toward only those sites that validate their views and feed their prejudices and avoid a broad spectrum of coverage and opinion.

Robert Kaiser, an associate editor at the Washington Post, recently was quoted as saying that the best defense for newspapers is a good offense.

Put more money back into the newsroom, Kaiser said, and build up the journalistic firepower and community reliability that newspapers have been slowly frittering away. Hooray for him.

Likewise, billionaire Warren Buffett, whose company now owns 27 dailies, described his vision in a letter to his editors and publishers last spring.

"Though the economics of the business have drastically changed since our purchase of the Buffalo (N.Y.) News (in 1977)," he wrote, "I believe newspapers that intensively cover their communities will have a good future.

"That means maintaining your news hole. A newspaper that reduces its coverage of the news important to its community is certain to reduce its readership as well."

He went on to say he wanted his papers to thoroughly cover all aspects of area life, particularly local sports. "No one ever stopped reading when half-way through a story that was about them or their neighbors."

But there's no question that newspapers, whether in print or on the Web, have their work cut out for them. Sad to say, Buffett himself announced Thursday that he is closing a small and struggling daily in Manassas, Va.

I spoke awhile back to a political science class at Sonoma State University. There were 30 students in the class, and only one said he read a daily newspaper.

The professor asked the others where they get their news and, basically, the answer was that they don't. They were really not interested in news from any source. They are too busy twittering and texting and posting on Facebook.

That's just one of many challenges newspapers face, but they won't be met by hunkering down, running scared and surrendering the franchise, as appears to be happening in Syracuse, Harrisburg and New Orleans, or by delivering less and trying to convince readers that it is more.

Thomas Jefferson, a frequent critic of the press of his day, is nevertheless quoted as having once said, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter."

A little extreme, maybe, but it still remains my favorite quote from our third president.

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