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March 30, 2009

Newspapers May Die, But Journalism Survives


The next step in the evolution of the American newspaper will take place this week in Michigan, where the state’s biggest paper will start the shift from a paper-only product to focusing on the Web as its platform to deliver the news. Starting this week, the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News will be delivered only on three days determined to be high readership days. The rest of the time, subscribers will have to access the news through the Internet or through an edition purchased at the newsstand.


The shift from home delivery of a product printed on dead trees to one printed with pixels has been long discussed in journalism circles, prompting criticism that the notion is hopelessly naďve about the nature of the Web, but also inspiring hope that perhaps journalism in Detroit won’t die.


There are, indeed, serious practical issues. One concerns subscribers who pay the full subscription rate, but who can’t get a physical form of the paper unless they shell out extra money on the four off-days to a newsstand vendor. It’s difficult to understand why anyone, especially those people who enjoy holding the paper in their hands – a substantial portion of a print newspaper’s readership – would do such a thing.


The move, however, has sparked a whole array of commentary on the death of the newspaper as if it represents the death of journalism itself. Observers within the industry bemoan the loss of shoe-leather reporting, claiming that if and when newspapers just simply stop existing, this will stop. As can be expected, this has touched off a whole new round of the blogger vs. journalism debate that raged during the early years of this decade.


A lot has changed since then, and the breadth and expertise of bloggers has expanded greatly. The paradigm is both no longer relevant and no longer useful. Experts, some of them in response to shortcomings in the mainstream press, have started their own blogs. You no longer need to go to a mainstream report for the latest climate research, for instance. Due in part, at least, to poor reporting, a group of climate scientists got together and founded Real Climate, which seeks to provide rapid commentary on the latest news and emerging trends in research.


The question today is no longer bloggers versus journalists, but how everyone can get along in this new environment in such a way that democracy can still function. At the end of the day, that’s ultimately the real question. This raises questions about connecting local communities to local news and issues.


For years, this has been a relevant point raised by the dead tree press. In the last few years, however, a growing number of alternative publications have started on the Internet, doing the nuts and bolts reporting on local democracy that used to be the purview of the beat reporter. For instance, AIG executives aren’t the only people who have received questionable bonuses over the last couple of years. Earlier this year, an alternative online publication in Connecticut revealed that the corporate owner of the local daily print newspaper – the Journal Register Company – had awarded millions of dollars in bonuses to executives for firing employees and shutting down newspapers. In response, Connecticut’s attorney general filed paperwork to stop the bonuses.


The rise of online publications comes as print publications have cut staff. In many cases, reporters fired from one outlet simply start doing the same job online. The loss of this experience to the newspaper industry is one of the most crippling issues facing the newspaper industry, but the young, hungry and talented are now going to work for themselves on the Web.


The picture for the American newspaper industry, thus, is incredibly bleak. There is no serious talk about a bailout for the industry. But, for American journalism, the picture isn’t nearly as grim. The mistake comes in assuming that the one represents the other, rather than representing a medium through which the other is expressed.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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