2.06.2009

One Man’s Newspaper History



I fell in love with newspapers when I was in senior high. Yes, I had looked at newspapers before that and had even been a newspaper boy (as they were called before the gender-neutral term “carrier” went into effect). But love came in my senior year when I realized that the only way I could get close to the girl I had a crush on was to join the staff of my high school newspaper.


She was the editor.


Alas, nothing came of the romance, but consider what it did for me. While still in high school, I became a stringer for my local newspaper in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, The Evening Courier, and then, upon graduation, its only sportswriter. The publisher said he hired me partly on the strength of a recommendation from his next-door neighbor, who said I had a good work ethic.


The neighbor was, in one of those life coincidences, the editor of my high school newspaper. Although I never got to first base with the high school editor and haven’t seen her since graduation day in 1961 (she became a missionary, and if you know me, you can see that would have never worked), I did end up with a great career because of the newspaper business. Now retired, I sit on the sidelines and watch as newspapers continue their downward spiral. And while many people are lamenting the current situation, I need to point out that the spiral did not start yesterday, but can be traced back nearly 100 years.


In my academic career, I helped chronicle the decline, starting with my master’s thesis, “The Death of a Small-Town Daily.” The thesis examined the demise of the Courier, the newspaper that gave me my first paying job in 1961 and disappeared in 1971, subsumed by a neighboring newspaper that subsumed two others and became a regional newspaper. Later I assisted Ben Bagdikian in a national study on why newspapers did or did not survive in the 1960s. That’s enough to make me an expert.


I checked my master’s thesis and found that the highest number of daily newspapers in the United States was recorded in 1910. Then we had 2,200 dailies. The latest figures I can find put the number at around 1,400.


The signs have always been there, although perhaps not as dramatically as they are now, when it’s not small-town dailies being subsumed, but metropolitan newspapers going bankrupt. Of course, today all businesses are suffering. Given that newspapers rely on advertising for revenue and businesses don’t advertise as much in bad economic times, newspapers are taking a hit from which many probably will not recover. Let’s face it: As long as the populations grows, there will be people to buy cars and houses and furniture, but whether or not those businesses advertise in newspapers is not so certain.


As I write this on my computer, having already skimmed headlines in six online newspapers (two from Australia) and having read the hard copy of my local newspaper while eating my breakfast, I worry more about the future of news rather than the future of newspapers. When I was a young city editor, we used to joke about the local radio station using our stories on the air—without credit—even though you could hear the reader turning the pages of the newspaper to read the rest of the story. (It was also funny when the story didn’t continue to the designated page and the reader was left to figure out how to go on from mid-sentence.) Today I note to my wife as we watch the news on television how many stories were first reported in that morning’s New York Times. If it weren’t for The New York Times, conservative talk-show host Bill O’Reilly would be at a loss for words, lacking a simultaneous source and target.


Google News and similar news collection sites use stories from the AP and papers such as the Times, but they cannot replace them. Can you imagine a Google News reporter going to a hot spot to cover a story? No way. News organizations such as the AP and the Times devote time and money to in-depth articles that Google News merely aggregates rather than develops on its own. That’s the strength of newspapers and that’s what we’re going to be poorer for as the downward spiral continues.

4 comments:

  1. Tom,

    I read your post with great interest. I won't bore you with my high school newspaper story, but I quit the football team to cover the football team. And never got that WPIAL championship every boy who grows up in Western Pennsylvania dreams of getting. One of the two great regrets of my life, actually.

    This past month, the Steelers have been on an incredible roll, culminating in one of the greatest Super Bowl victories ever. I've been at the Post-Gazette as the Asst. ME for sports since 2004 and it's the second Super Bowl the team has won. For the first time, we are hearing from readers who appreciate all the coverage, in-print and on the Web, and tell us how they live to read all the stories we've written, video we've posted and slide shows we've done.

    I have never been more rejuvenated as a journalist. Our business model is pretty fucked, but at least people still want to read us. I'll take that. I'll take anything at this point.

    I was honored to be on a panel at an Associated Press Sports Editor convention with my boss, David Shribman, Malcolm Moran, who you probably know, and Tim McGuire, former Star-Tribune editor and now Knight Chair for the business of Journalism at Arizona St. McGuire said the most remarkable thing during that panel: "we may be the only industry where we are in more demand than ever that collapases under the weight of its business model." He's probably right, unfortunately.

    But I tell you the people in Pittsburgh would not have enjoyed the Steelers as much unless we did our jobs. And maybe in this deep well, there's a shard of light. Maybe it'll start to show the way.

    I never had you as as student at PSU, but your reputation far preceeded you. And it's good to talk with you here.

    Regards,
    Jerry Micco

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  2. Jerry:

    Good to hear from you. I agree that good coverage is appreciated and makes the experience of following a team much better. Glad you are well.

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  3. I wanted to thank you for including The New Book Review in your nice blog roll and hope the writers who visit your blog will find ways to take advantage of this way to recycle treasured reviews at no charge. The guidelines are on the left.

    My best to you--one old newspaperwoman to o ne Man's Newspaper History. (-:

    Best,
    Carolyn Howard-Johnson
    Also blogging at Writer's Digest 101 Best Website blog, www.sharingwithwriters.blogspot.com

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  4. The blog had me smiling. I have a similar blog entry waiting to be published about a Journalism prof who told me if I couldn't type and use a computer, I better find another major. =)

    ReplyDelete