4/19/2009

Why newspapers are relevant

By mediagonebad

It seems that every new day brings another newspaper failure. So many people are getting their news from television and online sources that newspapers cannot compete. So they reduce the size of the paper, create online content, lay off and furlough employees -- anything to start operating in the black.

In the mid-1970s I was a student at Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood, Colo. Every day at the bus stop I would pick up a copy of the Rocky Mountain News (RMN). Its tabloid format was perfect for spreading out on a table in the student lounge; I even had room on the table for my coffee cup and a snack. The Denver Post, however, was a full-size paper that you had to open up and hold to read, which was more convenient for reading in a doctor’s office or sitting on the toilet.

I would often read the RMN from back to front, paying particular attention to stories buried on the inside. I found that the RMN had the Denver Post beat for the sheer diversity of the news. I found more national and international news in the RMN than I did in the Post and the features were always well-written and well-edited. I was particularly sad when the RMN went under in 2009 and I felt as though a piece of myself went under as well.

What is that attachment to newspapers? Why are readers sad when a paper goes belly up? After all, we pay for the paper, either through subscription or newsstand purchase. Advertising revenue is what keeps papers afloat and subscription and newsstand prices greatly undercut the true cost of the paper. I don’t know the figures, but my 50 cents would likely be $10 a day or more without advertising revenue figured in. How many readers would be willing to spend so much on a newspaper that will just be recycled at the end of the day? Probably none.

What news stories have the editors given us today? Part of the attachment to newspapers is the randomness, the surprise that awaits us as we turn each page. On the front page of the paper, there may be a quick index to the sections, but nothing to tell me what story I might find on page 32. There is nothing to click on and be transported instantly to that particular story. Every turn of the page is a surprise. I did not even know I would find a story about a new labor strike until I turned the page and found that the story impacted my life in some way. “Oh, I know people in that union,” I may have thought. So I read the story. I then contacted a friend and found out more information. An editor of a different paper may have decided not to run this story. The best papers print a diversity of stories simply because they are news. The editors believe in the public’s right to know and do not omit stories just because management or a prominent advertiser may disagree with it politically.

What will happen to news without newspapers, I wonder? Will the newspaper wire services, which still provide stories to all news outlets, still exist? If not, where will the news come from? Who will write it? Will they strive for impartiality or will they let the politics of their employer dictate what they write?

My Rocky Mountain News is gone and I am sad. I am sad not only because of the personal loss I feel, but also because of the loss that we should all feel -- the loss of news diversity. Somehow the void will be filled, but it will not be the same. As you read the packaged news on your Kindle, picking from a list which story you want to read, take a few moments to think about what you have given up for the sake of convenience. Your Kindle gives you content -- and room for your coffee cup -- but fifty cents or a dollar for a newspaper would have given you a surprise on every page. You would have learned something that you did not even realize you wanted to know about. And you can’t put a price on knowledge.

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