This past week I spent four days in southern California at corporate meetings concerning all the newspapers in our chain and I found out something I suspected, but wasn't sure of.
Many newspapers across the country are in great peril of disappearing.
The newspaper has been the stalwart of spreading news (sometimes factual and sometimes not) for over 500 years. When our country was founded it was the only way that people could get information about what was going on except by word of mouth.
In a free society newspapers are what have kept people up to date about what was going on with their local, state and federal governments. The newspaper is the watchdog for the citizens of a small town, just like it is when it comes to international politics.
Today consumers have many more choices where to get their news than even people 30 years ago did. Then television and radio was a newspapers biggest competitor. Today it is the internet and that medium is beginning to hurt many news organizations bottom lines so badly that it could mean the demise of many papers.
Some would say that is how progress works. Just look at the travel industry. At the turn of the 19th century railroads were the main way people traveled across the United States. Airplane transport was a pie in the sky dream that few, particularly railroad moguls, foresaw as a certainty. Today most people travel across the country either by car or by airplane.
There are many other examples of industries that have gone by the wayside over the years because of changes. It is nothing new. But the newspaper has been the staple of people for a very long time. It is easy to see how national and even state media outlets such as television, radio and the internet could replace information for people about issues at those levels. However, in small communities, what would replace the local stories and information that comes into homes each week via the newspaper?
However, changing times requires changing tactics. Internet sites are taking classified advertising away from almost all newspapers, particularly in the area of employment. Most human resource directors that are looking for qualified workers spend the vast majority of their advertising money on the internet instead of in newspapers. It's a fact of life those of us in the newspaper business have to live with and cope with.
The question is if we can deal with it. I believe we can and in fact in some ways I welcome the competition, because that factor should make our product better. In the last five years the Sun Advocate has spent a lot of time and money developing a user friendly website that provides a great deal of the information we have in the paper on the web. Our classifieds are on the web and we are anticipating tying that service to another that will connect us with many newspaper sites all over the country.
One of the statistics that is startling about newspaper readership is that as surveys sample people that grow younger in age, the readership goes down consistently. Many people under 30 years of age no longer read the newspaper, but get their information off the web. And with the advent of cell phones that will provide that same information, the portability and instant access will make the competition for that age group even stiffer. That means newspapers need to think of new ways to attract younger readers and to keep them. Ours included.
Last week the story of Deep Throat ate up all the headlines, and traditionally people would think that is what would be the number one topic of conversation amongst the American public. But what journalists and news people think are important is often skewed by their closeness to the stories and their education. Based on our pop culture society it should shock no one that what people really wanted to talk about last week was who won American Idol and what was happening in the Michael Jackson trial.
What does it all mean? A recent article I saw said that newspapers will go away within 100 years. Many other people think it will be much sooner than that. As a newspaper person, that is a hard dose of possible reality to take. However, I also know predictions about the future, no matter who the expert is, are always subject to unknown circumstances at the time of the prediction. Newspapers need to change. They need to become more electronically connected to their readers and they also need to be more responsive to a readership that continues to change.
In my life newspapers have played a big role since the first time I can remember my dad sitting in our kitchen reading his morning Salt Lake Tribune while he ate his breakfast to my present morning routine of looking at all the news items we know we have to cover. It's hard for me to imagine a modern free society without a newspaper that I can sit with on a Sunday morning or one I can look at to find detail on stories I just heard a short snippet about on the television news. There are a lot of stories out there, many of which the present media passes right by. I have to remind myself that just because things aren't important in my world, doesn't mean they aren't important.
And if they are important to someone and I miss them, someone else may not.