McGuire on Media

Newspapers no longer deserve the treasure of our time

The debate on the death of newspapers seems really late.

I find it more than a bit odd to waste many key strokes over whether Gannett and Scripps spinning off their newspaper divisions from their broadcast operations is THE sign of newspapers demise or if some other calamity will deal the decisive death blow. 

On August 11 David Carr of the New York Times set off a firestorm by declaring newspapers have been “kicked to the curb” by media companies spinning off their newspaper divisions from their broadcast and digital operations. Many of his critics accused Carr of saying newspapers are dead but I can’t find that phrase to save my life. One critic argued Carr “distorted print’s demise.”Some print apologists seemed to imply Carr’s piece was overblown and overwrought. Some critics argued someone must be blamed for the demise of newspapers. The essential argument seems to be “we’re not dead yet.”

Clay Shirky, stirred the pot again last week with his usual laser-like insight in a piece he called  “Last Call, the End of the Printed Newspaper. ”

Shirky was specific in his contention that Sunday pre-print inserts will stop soon and that will be the date of demise of newspapers. He is absolutely correct but that will simply be a final blow.

Printed newspapers have been dying an inexorable death for the last eight or nine years and it is time newspapers realize the only question now is can their news organization survive as a digital product?

Affixing the exact time and date of the death of newspapers should not be our focus. Newspapers may well hang around as print products for a while but if those organizations want to serve as the primary news source for their community they need to follow Steve Buttry’s advice and “unbolt” from their newspapers and reinvent journalism to serve communities. Some are trying, but in too many cases those efforts are naked cost-cutting rather than reinvention.

As a journalism educator I need to focus more on the reality facing my students. They don’t read newspapers and damn few of them are going to work for the print side of newspapers.

I have always believed you could spot a person’s real passion by where they spent their time. I am convinced, to paraphrase Matthew:6:21, we must invest our time where our treasure is.

People working in newspapers intuitively know their business is under siege but they keep doing the same old thing. One section editor, for whom I have deep affection,  was visibly upset when I told him I only read his newspaper on the Kindle. He whimpered “we spent all that time on those special layouts and you never saw them?” No I didn’t and neither did thousands of others.

Our real treasure is where we invest our time and too many newspapers are still investing much of their time in the “treasure” of newspapering rather than digital reinvention.

It is becoming clear that a person under 50 with a newspaper is becoming as rare as a Catarina pupfish. Many of my non-newspaper, mid-60 contemporaries still love the “concept” of newspapers but they see them becoming shadows of the quality publications they once were because of economic cutbacks.

It is also obvious that newspapers are losing their impact. I have no scientific evidence to support this but when my wife of 39 years, Jean Fannin McGuire, died June 21, social media seemed to inform the people who wanted to connect with me. I quickly figured out that numerous people I assumed would know about Jean’s passing from four newspaper obits simply didn’t know because they have stopped reading newspapers.

From Shirky to Carr to anecdotal evidence, it is clear it is time for me and my students to move on from newspapers.

My syllabus for this semester of 21st Century Journalism will address newspapers in a primarily historical context. Converting print operations to digital will remain important and we will focus on that, but we are also going to explore new business models for the new digital broadcast operation at the Cronkite School and Arizona Channel 8 PBS. We will also attempt to develop new business models for the new all digital State Press.

Newspapers have always been at the core of my class. It’s easy to figure out why. I spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business and the institution shaped my entire way of thinking. Distance and academia have forced me to rethink the role of newspapers in our society and it is clear disruption has reached a major breaking point for newspapers.

My students deserve a class that looks at the future realistically and that future is a fading one for the printed newspaper. It is the right moment for journalism schools and news organizations to invest their time in the right treasure—digital.

3 Comments

  1. Posted August 26, 2014 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Two comments:

    First, in my opinion the business side of the newspaper industry has been disgracefully behind/absent in innovating its way out of this crisis, and a good share of the blame for newspapers’ demise should be laid at the door of the “ad director.” (The very fact that this person is not yet called the “chief revenue officer” says volumes.) Hyperlocal journalists are trying hard to pick up the slack, but that’s not their job, or their passion (and sometimes it’s a direct conflict of interest), and it would be terrific if someone could create one or more “revenue commons”-type organizations to help make news organizations financially sustainabie, much the way Montclair State University here in New Jersey has its NJ News Commons to support hyperlocal journalists.

    And second, with regard to obits: Were you asked to pay for your wife’s obituary? This, in my opinion, is emblematic of newspapers’ shameful abdication of their role as the first drafters of their communities’ history. What will researchers think 200 years from now, when they read through newspapers and see obituaries only of people rich enough to pay for them? Is that a true portrait of the diversity of a community? If not, what good is a newspaper obit anyway?

    I have no easy answers to the crisis in which newspapers find themselves. In part this crisis was unavoidable, but in part it is of newspapers’ own making and I’m having trouble mustering up much sympathy. I mourn the loss deeply, but like you, I know it’s time to move on.

  2. Mark Pratt
    Posted August 26, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Why aren’t the success stories well shared. Just one example: Community Impact is a newspaper less than 10 years old with a print circulation now approaching 1 million. Profitable and generating 10 million dollars in revenue. Where is that talked about? http://impactnews.com

  3. admin
    Posted August 26, 2014 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    You just did, Mark. However, am I wrong to note it is a digital success story and not a print success?