Opinion

A bailout plan for struggling newspapers

Even in the year 2050, newspapers will still line birdcages.

That means newspapers will also find their way into the hands and minds of readers. You will always be able to pick up The New York Times or Wall Street Journal and get ink on your fingertips.

In the Information Age, newspapers focus on staying alive. The Internet has opened infinite doors to publishing.

However, the business model of newspapers has been turned inside out as advertisers flock to the Internet.

After hitting peak profits and popularity, the once-mighty newspaper industry occupies a smaller throne.

Money isn’t the only problem. In a recent report, media mogul Rupert Murdoch said newspapers became complacent and failed to keep up with technology. Nowadays, newspapers compete for an audience they once took for granted.

When it comes to shaping public discourse, the Internet steals some of that power from newspapers and shares it with the masses. Amid the declining demand for printed newspapers, demand for reputable news has never been higher. The “news brand” will become the calling card, and the printed newspaper will act as one extension of that brand.

A bailout plan for newspapers should include a sharper focus on readers.

I spent six years at a daily newspaper in the eastern Phoenix suburbs. The paper was somewhat like the now-defunct King County Journal, but with a higher circulation. Recently, that Arizona paper slashed 40 percent of its staff and switched to a free four-day-a-week tabloid. The paper has always struggled in the market against the dominant metro daily, and apparently will make one last stand.

Many employees saw the Arizona paper as a career stepping stone. Journalists could cut their teeth, win a few awards or build their resumes. If they wanted more pay, they left. Because of the paper’s money woes, job openings went unfilled.

The paper employed good journalists, but was stretched too thin by trying to cover such a sprawling suburban area.

As a result, the paper’s coverage typically scraped the surface of communities and seemed detached. To put this in perspective, imagine if the Tacoma News Tribune also covered all of King County except Seattle, but did so with same number of employees it has now.

The old King County Journal was replaced by weekly and twice-weekly newspapers for individual communities, much like the paper you’re reading now.

Had that Arizona paper thought in terms of earning four quarters instead of a dollar, it might be in better shape today. With a refined focus on a single community, a smaller paper can meet demand for intensely local news and opinions. The major metro dailies may swoop into town for the big stories, but the community paper can form the foundation for public discourse.

Employees at smaller publications have the right to envy the higher paychecks and prestige of the metro daily.

But in the end, the wizard matters more than the wand. When smaller papers make ripples and deliver news that readers trust, they increase the odds of surviving.

Newsrooms must redefine both their finances and attitudes. That’s the real bailout plan, driven by a tsunami-like change that snatched the wheel right out of our hands.

Mirror editor Andy Hobbs:

editor@fedwaymirror.com

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