Every Monday (well, except for holidays, in which case Tuesday) for the last 12 and a half years, this column has appeared in The Athens NEWS.
That’s an eighth of a century, which isn’t long in geological terms, but a child in kindergarten when my weekly screed first appeared will be starting college this fall, so it’s something.
No more, though. That’s because this is the last Early Week edition of the paper (as stated, nearly always Monday, but today Tuesday because of Memorial Day). So I’m toddling on down the week, to Thursdays beginning June 6.
I’m kind of proud that the column has been here without fail every Monday since Oct. 2, 2006. (Actually, there was that one time, early on, when due to a lack of space, it got bumped to Thursday.)
It’s a good time to ponder the state and nature of the newspaper industry, which ought to be a lot better than it is. Papers all over the place are hurting. Here are some glimpses from my own professional wanderings:
The Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune, my hometown paper and the place where I grew up, got sold two and a half years ago (to the company that had bought The Columbus Dispatch). It had been in the same family for 115 years. It’s still publishing but a lot has changed. Its website and that of the Dispatch are the same design and often contain much of the same stuff, and many of the things normally done in the local newsroom are now done elsewhere. It is a local paper – kinda.
My next newspaper was The Broward Times, a thrice-weekly Knight-Ridder paper in Broward County, Florida, where each of the four reporters was expected to produce 40 stories per week. It was glorious, if you devoted your every waking moment to the sacred duties of newspapering, which we did. It died during the great and ill-advised newspaper consolidations of the last quarter of the last century.
By then I was at The Fort Lauderdale News, the big local afternoon daily. We had three or four editions each day, about 15 reporters, too many editors, and did well. It merged with the morning paper, The Sun-Sentinel, in 1982, so in one sense it’s still there but in all important ways it’s gone.
A lot of people in South Florida went there from New York. I swam upstream, and headed to the Gannett Newspapers in Westchester County, New York. At the time they comprised 10 intensely local papers that together had been the Macy papers before the Gannett chain purchased them. We covered Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties, all New York City bedroom communities. (We invented what became USA Today there, a morning paper called TODAY that was printed on orange-pink newsprint and that carried the advertising slogan “reach for the peach.”)
In 1998 Gannett merged the 10 local dailies into one paper, The Journal News. Many reporters and other staff lost their jobs. In 1980 there were a half dozen reporters in the dinky Putnam County Bureau alone; last I heard, the entire reportorial staff was not much larger than that.
I had already gone into broadcasting and freelancing. My favorite freelance client was The Miami Herald, which at the time was populated by Dave Barry, Gene Weingarten, Gene Miller, Joel Achenbach, Tom Shroder, Dave Von Drehle, Edna Buchanan and other greats of latter-day newspapering, most of whom had won or have since won Pulitzer prizes. (The Herald put a story or two of mine up for Pulitzers, unsuccessfully, alas.) But a series of economies undertaken by The Herald’s owner, Knight-Ridder, drove many of those people away (to jobs like TIME Magazine New York bureau chief and Washington Post columnist), and in due course the paper was sold to the McClatchy chain. The final episode of the Miami-based television program “Burn Notice” showed the glorious Herald building, at One Herald Plaza, right on the water, being blown up. Enough said.
It’s not (I hope) that my presence is the kiss of death to newspapers. The industry is in trouble, partly due to mismanagement but mostly for reasons that make no sense.
When I was in grade school, my assignments were completed with white number 2 lead pencils bearing the slogan, “Complete News Coverage – The Columbia Daily Tribune – Best Advertising Medium.”
And you know what? Newspapers are still the best local advertising medium, especially for advertisers such as local retailers and other businesses that deal with the public.
Why? Because local newspapers are local. Because they present the message the advertiser wants presented, in a clear and easily found but not obnoxious way. Because they are targeted to the customers retailers and other businesses need.
Sadly, many newspapers have gone off chasing phantoms.
In the case of my former newspaper in Westchester County, New York, it was thought that the advertising money was in the big-box stores, which it was until it wasn’t anymore. Meanwhile, those lovely little very local papers had disappeared. The beauty parlor in down-county Mount Vernon no longer had a place to advertise, because it was rightly unwilling to spend more to reach readers in Peekskill, 35 miles away, who were not going to make the trip.
Papers have cowered in terror at the advent of the Internet. Well: newspapers have no ad blockers, OK? Nor do they have pop-ups. And newspaper advertisements are effective at a far higher rate than Internet ads are. You can look it up – even the Internet says so!
People (including, foolishly, some people at newspapers) believe that “social media” have replaced local news. Not so. Vast gossip websites have displaced local papers to some extent, but until “social media” become reliable – which aintagonna happen – you believe what you read there at your peril. There’s recourse if a newspaper gets it wrong, and most papers take accuracy seriously.
When the newspapers are gone, there’s nothing to replace them. What other local coverage do you have? Television news is 95 percent entertainment and 5 percent real news, covered superficially and often inaccurately. The “news” channels are wont to “cover” some tragedy – say, a fiery 10-car pileup – without ever even mentioning when and where it took place. This is deliberate, because programmers want viewers to believe that it’s happening right now, instead of yesterday or the day before.
I write this with a bit of self interest, but it’s true anyway: if we do not support our local newspapers, we will one day soon regret their loss.
Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at email@example.com.