Since 2010, my wife, Sara Brown, and I have been periodically traveling across North America — all 48 contiguous U.S. states and nine Canadian provinces — to discover what’s happening to community newspapers.
After driving more than 43,000 miles, and interviewing executives at 59 newspapers, we have a clearer vision of the dynamic changes underway in the newspaper industry and of the motivations of the people who work in it.
Folks have been trying to write an obituary for newspapers for quite a while.
In 1991, when I was beginning to teach journalism, a veteran advertising professor told me: Forget about preparing kids for newspapers. Newspapers are not going to be around much longer, he said.
In 2009, Sara and I discussed what we might do after I retired from Southern Oregon University. I had 29 years experience in broadcast news and wire services and 19 years teaching journalism; Sara had worked with newspapers for more than 25 years.
We daydreamed about a trip around the U.S. Then it occurred to us: We could devise a mission to make the trip more meaningful. We would visit one newspaper in each state, and look behind that headlines that predicted newspaper annihilation and discover how these news organizations were actually doing. So we documented our findings at www.WhoNeedsNewspapers.org.
We discovered the classic, three-dimensional newspaper — delivered once a day with text, photos and graphics — was dead. A shiny, new business model — the transformational newspaper — had superseded it.
Since about 1995, when the Internet blossomed, newspapers have been adapting to become high-tech news-and-information companies. At widely varying rates, they have become: Internet-leveraged, interactive, multimedia, multiplatform, news-and-information companies, operating 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, utilizing both print and digital channels.
Leading transformational newspapers have been reshaping the industry.
They have added video reporting and video advertising (a new revenue source). Many are using the Internet’s interactivity to gather richer feedback from their communities. A few use feedback data to guide their news coverage and fine-tune their target advertising. More are devising transactional revenue streams. And some are erecting local mini-websites to assemble special interest and region-specific audiences for niche advertisers.
The news delivery world has been fractionalized. Those old newspapers are hopping aboard the latest news media platforms — the Internet, smart phones and social media — to deliver reporting 24/7.
The other fact we discovered was more a reaffirmation than a revelation: Highly motivated, community-oriented professional journalists are the linchpin of newspapers and vital to their communities.
Several weeks into our journey, we began asking each person we interviewed a final question:
“Please tell us — in the form of an anecdote — about a time in your career when the power and purpose of journalism became clear to you. What happened and what did you learn?”
The anecdotes were spontaneous, sincere and revealing.
Porter had discovered a scam in which an elderly female patient lost the ownership of her home while she was in the hospital. After the story was published, local laws were changed to protect vulnerable citizens from such scams.
“It was a wonderful moment for this woman, who, I know, nobody else would listen to,” said Warren. “Nobody, but The (Philadelphia) Daily News.”
In Montana, Nick Ehli, managing editor, The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, explained what happened when he wrote about a six-man football team formed after community’s leaders converted a beet field to a gridiron in Custer, Montana.
“I went down to (Custer to) watch a game after this story had run,” he said. “This elderly woman came up and said, ‘You’re the man who wrote the story, right?’”
“‘I’ve only seen my husband cry on a couple of occasions in his entire life,’ she told him. ‘But he cried when he read that story.’”
In Kansas, Dolph Simons Jr., 83, chairman and editor of The Lawrence Journal-World remembered a historic day when the value of newspapers crystallized for him.
“I was out at my grandfather’s house on Dec. 7, 1941 — Sunday,” he said. “I heard about Pearl Harbor and dad said, ‘We’re gonna’ put out an extra!’”
Simons’ father had preceded him as editor of the Lawrence newspaper. There was no scheduled Sunday newspaper, but they published one that Sunday.
“I always wanted to be in the newspaper business,” Simons said. “I just can’t imagine any other business that would be more interesting. … and you want to leave your community better than when you found it.”
“I’ll be dead one of these days pretty quick,” said Simons, “but I would like to figure out: How in the hell do we come up with a plan to take advantage of the opportunities to keep newspapers alive? I think we have this responsibility,” he said, “to try to inform the public.”
We collected these journalism epiphanies in “Practicing Journalism: The Power and Purpose of the Fourth Estate,” (Marion Street Press, Portland, Ore., 2014). They tell a story of journalists who gather the news and deliver it. They inform readers about how their communities are doing and what their destinies may be.
As one editor in Oklahoma told us, many newspapers are “the glue” that holds a community together. The transformational newspaper business model is still being tweaked, but the role these journalists serve is vital, palpable and worth sustaining.
Paul Steinle, a journalist for 29 years and a journalism teacher since 1991, is former president of UPI and Financial News Network and TV news director at KING-TV in Seattle. He is currently an adjunct professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. Sara Brown is a human resource professional, management trainer, columnist and educator in the newspaper business.
Paul Steinle and Sara Brown will talk about their book, “Practicing Journalism: The Power and Purpose of the Fourth Estate,” at 7 p.m. Oct. 7 at the Edmonds Public Library, Plaza Room, 650 Main St., Edmonds.