June 1, 2011
Stop The Presses - Never!
A few years ago, Tom Brokaw of NBC news said words to the effect that newspapers might not be here 10 or 20 years from now. At the same time, some critics felt that network news, as we now know it, will be obsolete in 10 or 20 years because of the expense of doing a nightly show. My personal preference relies on hope that newspapers are here forever. I hope nightly news also remains forever, though I still believe nightly news should be one hour long and not 30 minutes.
In one aspect, if newspapers fold, I believe it will happen mostly in the large cities. I think there’s a better chance that a paper in Butler, PA will be here 20 years from now, and maybe the New York Times, as a printed newspaper, won’t be. If the time comes when newspapers are obsolete, I pity America and the country that must rely on local news by the way of local television. If there’s one thing that is overdone now in many markets, it’s the coverage of local news. Local news is based on the most sensational pictures available: fires, car accidents, and the occasional lost dog. Local news has little coverage on important current subjects and controversial issues. For instances, in Pittsburgh, there’s a major crisis with the pension/retirement program for city workers. As far as I can tell, the local news has never done an in-depth story of this subject including how this happened. Where’s the presentation of why this came to be an issue? Where were the mistakes made? I conclude the reason local news coverage lacks results from the topic not translating to pictures. You can’t show pictures to tell this story.
I believe papers in the smaller cities and towns, and even the weeklies, will always be with us. For example, take the Altoona Mirror, a morning paper daily circulation of 34,000 and approximately 38,000 on Sundays. Altoona serves as an example of a typical American town. Altoona is about seventy miles from Pittsburgh and a short distance from Penn State University, from which its editor, Neil Rudel, graduated. I’m convinced The Altoona Mirror and papers of similar size will be here 20 years from now. The New York Times and network news may be a different story.
Like New York papers, the Altoona Mirror suffered during the recession. Now we’re told we’re coming out of the recession. I’m not convinced. Rudel said to me, “We had to let a few people go, but I think we did OK considering how deep the recession was.”
Rudel feels that many people who once lived in Altoona but moved away still subscribe to the small town local paper. “I think it will always be the case that people who grew up here will always subscribe to the paper. I can’t say that will be the same of someone who left New York City or perhaps even Pittsburgh. Older subscribers are an advantage for the Altoona Mirror. While some who have moved away keep up with home town news via the internet, older folks are fundamentally not part of an online culture.”
I love reading newspapers. I don’t read from front page to the last, but I like turning the pages. I like reading the index. And I go through the paper page by page, reading headlines. I don’t read every story, but if it interests me, I read it. I seldom read editorials on any paper, especially in larger papers. Though I subscribe to the New York Times by mail, I don’t think I’ve read one editorial. I always think people who write editorials in the large newspapers are out of touch. For example in contrast, Neil Rudel says when he goes out to dinner with his family or walks through the grocery store, “the readers recognize me.” I think it would be rare for anyone to recognize the editor of the New York Times on the street.
One thing that perturbs a newspaper guy like Rudel is the internet: The internet gets much of its news from newspapers. If newspapers go out of business, the internet might be in trouble for distributing news. Rudel also notes that small town radio stations could not exist without newspapers – without small town newspapers. This doesn’t say that papers like the Altoona Mirror exist without problems. All newspapers suffered during the recession and are still suffering in this economy. “Our news coverage is about the same as it’s always been. I’m not saying that every so often an edition doesn’t have a few less pages, but we always have an editorial page and syndicated columnists in our paper.”
Local newspapers provide an important service in printing obituaries. Though the New York Times does tremendous obituaries of the famous and infamous—and one day should win a Pulitzer for them, a big difference contrasts with the small town obituaries, such as in Altoona. “Because of our older population,” Rudel says, “when an older person dies and we run the obit, a good chance exists that more than a few people knew the deceased personally. Obits are very important for a paper our size.” Rudel also points out, “We cover news, we cover the police on a consistent basis, and we are big on high school sports. One complaint we got is from older readers complaining about the small type. Our TV section responded by making the necessary changes.”
One of the most important items to readers of the daily newspaper is the horoscope. A significant problem occurs if someone forgets to print the horoscope. If they leave out the editorial, not such an issue. But if they leave out the horoscope – I guarantee you get complaint calls. Other items of importance are the crossword puzzles and comics. If the newspapers leave out horoscope, comics, or puzzles, the readers won't be happy. Like meeting a neighbor who gives grim news without a pleasant greeting, courtesy smile or interesting wit, the newspaper without those friendly features disappoints the reader. And, the paper had better arrive between 6:00 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. or the phones will be ringing. And there better be no mistake in the crossword puzzle—that ruins the entire day for the staff.
Newspapers survived initial radio competition and magazine profusion, but growing television took more and more ad revenue from newspapers for itself. Many of the large cities don’t have multiple daily papers, which they did fifty or sixty years ago. For example, in Florida, the cities of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, St. Petersburg, and Tampa each had two daily papers. Now they each have only one morning paper. In small towns, as in Uniontown and Washington, PA, the story is the same—one paper remains from previously two. In New York City, the loss of the New York World Journal Tribune, itself an attempt at survival through consolidation by merger upon merger, left the New York Times as the city’s only broadsheet newspaper. The other dailies in New York survive with a news quality associated with their tabloid format.
More than an incidental value of newspapers is the development and sustenance of quality journalism. In addition to many of the names mentioned, I’d add Jim Lehrer of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, who co-produced the PBS’ "The News Hour" and other programs and series. Lehrer came to PBS through journalism: he began as a newspaper reporter in Dallas, after his college education and stint in the Marine Corps.
When USA Today debuted, it was the butt of many jokes—especially, I would imagine, at elite schools of journalism and by New York critics who still make fun of it. I respect the late David Brinkley, who could have joined in the snobbery, but spoke out early as one of the individuals who felt that USA Today had a shot. Brinkley didn’t demean USA Today. He told his co-worker, J. Dorrance Smith, who eventually became Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs under Bush “43”, “When I go to the office restroom, the USA Today would often be on the floor. Someone had read it and left it there” for sharing. Brinkley didn’t miss the clue. Other critics look down on USA Today and early on gave it dim chances of success. They overestimated American snobbery and underestimated its desire for community. Those critics probably never shop at Wal-Mart and are generally out of touch with most Americans. USA Today serves a great purpose if you travel a lot. You can buy the USA Today any day in Meadville, PA, for example. But a national abridged version of the Sunday New York Times would cost you six or seven dollars Meadville, PA, while back in New York, the full version is five dollars.
I enjoy the USA Today and I enjoy The New York Times, though I don’t read editorials in either one. I do read the op-ed in every paper I read. However, I maintain if USA Today became only a daily sports section of 24 pages, its circulation would remain at least at 80% of its present circulation. Daily newspapers across the country have cut back on the coverage of sports – in most cases.
The early snobbery against the USA Today reminds me of Mike Todd’s famous dismissal to Walter Winchell: Todd walked out after the first act of a preview of the musical Oklahoma!, declaring: “No legs, no jokes, no chance” (also recorded as “No gags, no girls, no chance"). “Oklahoma!” went on to win Rogers and Hammerstein a Pulitzer and have a Broadway run of over 2,000 performances.
At times I consider myself a critic, but I’m smart enough to know that there’s as much of a chance—maybe more—of my being wrong than my being right. Tom Brokaw may be partially right. But I still maintain newspapers will be here 60 years from now. Maybe not in big cities, but in small towns. And the US has New York more small towns than big cities. Many large and mid-size cities have eliminated delivering the daily paper to some towns and outlying smaller towns. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette doesn’t go to Altoona, PA anymore, for instance. It used to be available in Altoona daily, but now only on Sundays. When I worked in Lake City, Florida, it seemed that almost everyone read the daily paper. I think the people of Altoona, PA would have a difficult time if the Altoona Mirror folded. The same is true of the newspapers of Mansfield, Ohio, Rexburg, Idaho, and Fairmont, West Virginia. Those newspapers remain the glue of small towns.
© Beano Cook 2011
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