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Is the Demise of Newspapers a Legitimate Story?

The good news: Newspapers long ago claimed the high ground in the media industry, and saw to it that it was inhabited by dogged, inquisitive journalists whose job it was to be the eyes and ears of their communities.

Done right, readers needed only pick up the paper each day to know what was going on around them. They could be confident the paper had their interests in mind when covering and uncovering the myriad things going on around them -- whether it be in the seats of government, on the turf of the ballparks, or in the classrooms of their schools.

The bad news: It can get mighty lonely at the top of that virtuous mountain when news-consumers have so much low-hanging news and information to feed on. And even if so much of it is junk they are devouring, it is no less filling.

With a nod to the great Joni Mitchell then, I am re-hashing a verse today that goes straight to the ears of newspaper publishers and the people who are turning away from their products: "Don't it always seem to go/That you don't know what you've got till it's gone ..."

In this case what's going (fast) is the dogged, shoe-leather investigative reporting and community coverage that readers used to get when they picked up a newspaper. It's going because one by one, newspapers are losing money by the bucketfuls as readers turn away from print and toward the free-for-all of the Internet.

As newspapers lose money, they lose editorial staff. As they lose editorial staff, huge chunks of their communities go uncovered. Important stories are missed. Power is left unchecked ...

Could be people will be just fine and dandy if newspapers go to their graves. I am of the opinion they won't be, even if I have no revolutionary ideas of how to stem the death march.

So I was heartened today when I read this provocative offering by another Mitchell, Bill, from PoynterOnline.

Mitchell interviewed Gene Roberts, who before retiring, spent 18 years atop the The Philadelphia Inquirer's masthead as the paper's executive editor.

Roberts is an old-school print guy if there ever was one and is now arguing that the fall of newspapers is, "... not just a problem for journalism, (but) a problem for democracy."

That line was included in an address he recently gave to an assemblage of journalists during the George Polk Awards in Journalism ceremony at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City.

"What a democratic society does not know, it cannot act upon," Roberts continued. "It is past time for America to become alarmed about its shrinking news coverage, but it is showing few signs of concern. In an era in which layoffs have become commonplace, newsroom cutbacks are taken as just one more twist in a bad economic downturn."

These comments are significant, but are they too little, too late?

I ask, and Mitchell did too, because newspapers have always been reticent to make themselves part of the story (any story) -- maybe too reticent at times. This was a noble approach, but could be serving no useful purpose these days if the demise of newspapers is a legitimate news story in its own right.

Mitchell asked Roberts about his softening of the long-held position that newspapers should avoid being part of the story at all costs and here's what he typed:

He (Roberts) said the obvious problem with news organizations covering themselves and their competitors -- and the reason he published little of it as an editor -- is the organizations' own self-interest in the story. But he said the stakes to democracy have become so high these days that he'd figure out a way to get the cutback story told.
He said he recognizes that detailed reporting about reduced coverage could make readers and viewers less likely to buy a paper or watch the news, thus exacerbating the problem. But he also attributed muted coverage of the issue to "the embarrassment" of editors and news executives about the cuts they're making.

He then quoted Roberts for the record:

"Somebody has to look out for the public's interest. I understand why they don't give chapter and verse on what they're cutting back in their own back yard, but somebody out there ought to be doing it."

That's pretty heavy-duty stuff for the high-minded newspaper industry, but desperate times call for desperate measures, lest newspapers go the way of all that paradise Joni Mitchell was singing about.

(Got a tip, a gripe, or some kudos? Send 'em along.)