Recently two highly respected journalists — one on the left and one towards the right — tried to make a case for saving the business that has been their bread and butter: newspapers. They both failed.
Syndicated columnists Leonard Pitts, Jr., the liberal Pulitzer Prize winner whose home paper is the Miami Herald, and conservative-leaning Kathleen Parker, who writes for the Orlando Sentinel and 325-or-so other newspapers, wrote about the alleged indispensability of the media models they are anchored to. Pitts called newspapers “a vital, irreducible mission.” Parker said they were “necessary,” primarily because of their service to their communities.
With due respect to both writers, they sound more like union laborers trying to hang on to their buggy whip manufacturing jobs rather than the professional persuaders that they are supposed to be. That’s because they are wedded to a media delivery format that is quickly going the way of the horse-drawn carriage. Somewhat surprisingly, these two usually perceptive and insightful commentators are completely in the dark about it.
In his column Pitts emphasized the need for newspapers in situations like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when many victims lost communication with the rest of the country. When some Mississippians showed their “amazing” gratitude for receiving copies of the Biloxi Sun Herald, Pitts called it a much-needed “pep talk” for newspaper employees.
“I find myself returning to that post-Katrina episode a lot lately as people in the newspaper business try to make me feel better about working in the newspaper business,” Pitts wrote.
He cited the uncertainty in the business, particularly illustrated by a recent drive by the Knight Ridder (the second-largest newspaper publisher in the country and owner of the Herald) board of directors to explore a sale of the company. Despite maintaining profits as high as 20 percent, Pitts said media corporations are cutting staff and benefits at papers because revenue is down — as is readership.
For her part, Parker bemoaned “cubicled and corporatized” newsrooms that have come to resemble “morgues.” She blamed the “calculator crowd” for cutbacks in response to that diminished readership, which is coupled with lower advertising revenue.
“To those in the trenches (i.e., reporters), cutting staff is exactly the wrong solution, more like a self-inflicted wound trending toward suicide than a remedy,” Parker wrote. “By cutting newsroom staffs, the corporate suits are reducing the likelihood that papers can do what makes them necessary.”
The common theme between Pitts’s and Parker’s arguments is that newspapers deserve to survive because, well, they’re newspapers. According to Parker, “newspapers serve their communities in ways that can’t be replicated by bloggers…or by anyone else. They not only help define a given community, but also serve as both government watchdog and information conduit. They have the resources to investigate, to report, to inform as no other entity can, does, or will.”
But the two columnists suffer from an entitlement mentality, believing that their mode of information transmission is worthy of preservation despite whether there is a demand for it. They are basically saying the market be damned; newspapers are a necessary public service, regardless of the costs or the public’s appetite for them.
Consider this parallel: telephone communication would likewise be considered a vital and important service in our current culture, wouldn’t it? But with the development of cellular telephones, e-mail, and instant messaging as popular alternatives, should cutting employees associated with traditional land line service be regarded as “a self-inflicted wound trending toward suicide”? Did the “corporate suits” at now-dead AT&T, for example, cut staff and keep the company from doing “what makes them necessary”?
I’m not one of those who are convinced that newspapers are dead, but they are undergoing a necessary transformation. The ones with smart leadership are adapting to what the public wants: fair, compelling and succinct writing, relevant and entertaining stories, delivered increasingly through multiple methods in an electronic format.
Bloggers and alternative media forced the acceleration of this change. Contrary to Parker’s claims, they are government watchdogs, and they keep a needed eye on mainstream journalism as well — which seems to have a difficult time policing itself. They are doing what good competition always does: improving overall service, filling market demands, and forcing the established industry giant to adapt and improve themselves. Now newspapers are hiring their own bloggers and in larger cities, they post instant news reports on their websites.
Considering the market forces, Knight Ridder selling its newspapers may be a good thing. Instead of having owners unhappy with their investment, perhaps they will get one(s) with realistic expectations about their financial returns.
Whatever happens, media consumers will gravitate to what they want. It’s up to the industry to adapt.