T en years ago, I wrote a column entitled “Support Your Local Newspaper.” It was not the dawn of the Internet age, but it was still morning and I am a late riser. The column was a heartfelt brief for print media, which was my love and my livelihood for 35 years. I can say, happily, that print outlasted me. I get a newspaper in my driveway every morning, two of them on weekends, and another one off a stack inside Joe’s Wines. And thanks to print operations that generate most of the revenue, I read several more online each day from Michigan, Montana, Mississippi, and Washington, D.C.
I got some things wrong ten years ago. I said you couldn’t take a computer to the bathroom without being uncouth. That was dumb. I didn’t foresee iPads and smartphones. I said computers were slow to load and prone to crash, which they were then, but not so much now. That was dumb too.
I said newspapers don’t crash. No, but their publishing companies do and many of them did.
I said the newspapers you carry around make a statement about the kind of person you are. True. The statement is “I am old.”
I said reading newspapers with someone was a communal experience that promoted enlightenment and domestic bliss. That was quaint. You can blather or tweet a lot more about what you see or hear on your iPad or smartphone and send your selfies to 1,000 friends on Facebook.
I underestimated how online media could be customized with stories and ads based on my trail of clicks and cookie crumbs, and I was too hardheaded to see how social media could be a distribution channel for people (like print columnists) to say, “Look at me.”
But I got some things right too.
Local editors and publishers did a good job of managing their way to survival. They got rid of deadwood and unprofitable circulation, kept some key people, and found new people who were eager, able, and savvy.
Following Elmore Leonard’s advice to authors, they left out the parts that readers skip. They went mostly local. Basketball is a 12-month story, of sorts anyway. Food is the new football. Race equals readers. You can get your national and world news somewhere else.
Newspapers opine about all sorts of things over which they have zero influence, but for too long they let anonymous creeps have free run of their online editions and sometimes their print editions. In the last year they have shown signs of getting a handle on this. Better late than never.
Most of the local blogs that were around ten years ago are long gone. Funny how the writing itch goes away when you’re not getting paid.
They monetized content without becoming prostitutes. You can buy an obituary of whatever length you please. The obit page has become a popular art form, exclusive to daily papers. I never miss it because I probably know someone. But you can’t buy a news story.
Print newspapers support working journalists. Imperfect and underpaid as they are, they gather information and take names by going to meetings and interesting places and events and talking to people with different points of view. Somebody has to pay for that. Opinions and blogs and summaries of other people’s work may be interesting, but they’re not news. Most of the local blogs that were around ten years ago are long gone. Funny how the writing itch goes away when you’re not getting paid.
Newspapers are still a bargain. That’s especially true of the Memphis Flyer, which is free, but it’s also true of The Commercial Appeal and The New York Times and The Washington Post, which, at around $200 a year, cost far less than cellphone contracts or cable television packages.
Most daily newspapers now charge for online content, as well they should. The CA only gives you a free peek at the headlines, and The Washington Post gives you 20 free stories a month. Junkies, they know, use that up fast. At the Post, readership is up 30 percent in a slow summer news season.
The 36 percent profit margins that the CA and other dailies once enjoyed are long gone, but the new ownership, in tandem with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, seems determined to make a go of it anyway. Casinos, car dealers, jewelers, restaurants, and other key advertisers still believe in print.
And that’s good news.