Getting a read on the future of newspapers
By Susan Shinn
CHAPEL HILL ó Like many other businesses, the newspaper industry is in freefall.
Buyouts and layoffs are becoming all-too-common occurrences at newspapers across the country.
While the future of newspapers looks bleak at the moment, there is still some promise in the process of newsgathering.
On Oct. 7, the National Press Club hosted a forum at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Serving on a panel for the hour-long discussion were Orage Quarles, publisher of the News & Observer in Raleigh; Penny Muse Abernathy, the school’s Knight Chair in Digital Media Economics; Deborah Potter, NewsLab director; and Jim Hefner, a professor and former vice president and general manager at WRAL-TV in Raleigh.
The evening’s moderator was Donna Leinwand, USA Today correspondent and the press club’s vice president.
“There is change once again as the profession appears to be going through a very tumultuous time,” Leinwand said.
Newspapers and other media outlets must discern their core values while attempting to maintain quality journalism, even as the economic model changes, she said.
Leinwand asked the panel, “What is the future, and how do we get paid for our work?”
“It’s been a couple of tough years for the print side,” Quarles said.
In the past, sales from automotive, real estate and help wanted ads served to build up newsrooms.
“That model is going away,” he said.
Classifieds, he added, are threatened by online sites and the economy.
There are fewer staffers and fewer pages, Quarles said, “but we’re still committed to serving our community like we never had before.”
Quarles noted that in 1975, the News & Observer had 400 staffers. By 2000, that number had grown to 1,200.
“We built the model based on revenue,” he said.
Today the N&O employs 750.
“I don’t think we’re gonna give readers less information,” Quarles said. “We just won’t have the same number of pages or the number of people.”
Although circulation is down, readership is up because of the Internet.
“We have more people reading than ever before,” Quarles said.
The challenge is making a profit online.
Abernathy said that there was a question of whether the industry was in a “cycle” versus a “cyclone,” the type of massive interruption that the country experienced in the 1930s.
Traditionally, there have been certain fixed costs associated with publishing newspapers, such as newsprint, ink and printing presses.
Because of the Internet, Abernathy said, “those costs have gone away. We haven’t adjusted to that yet.”
She added, “The role of journalism is to make sense of society. It provides immediacy and analysis and that remains essential.”
The panel discussed how larger newspapers are consolidating their copyediting and printing operations to save money.
This riled Dr. Frank Fee, an associate professor who teaches editing at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
“Copy editors are journalists, they’re not functionaries,” he told the panel.
With such outsourcing, he said, “We as readers will be diminished.”
Potter was asked about “I-reporters,” or citizen journalists who make use of electronic media. Because most people carry cameras on their cellphones, breaking news can usually be captured via video.
“Citizen journalism is here to stay,” Potter said. “People want to contribute. People don’t want to be talked at.”
Potter cited a recent fake report from an I-reporter about the death of Steve Jobs ó which caused Apple’s stock price to plummet temporarily.
“It’s a cautionary tale for our times,” she said.
Yet, she said, “I don’t see any news organization turning down I-reporters. It does raise the bar for what news organizations do to verify information.”
Hefner sees the Internet as a complement to television news.
In the past, the television industry has enjoyed double-digit growth, Hefner said. “Three to four percent revenue growth is not gonna get it.”
Smart players, Hefner said, will be in all types of media.
“The way we do our jobs will have to change,” she said.
For example, reporters must tell a story for their own Web sites, for social networking sites such as Twitter as well as in traditional print products, she said. “It’s a different way of thinking. Are the values gonna change? I hope not.”
Abernathy noted, “There is a standard and credibility respected around the world that has to do with the First Amendment. That is what’s critical and has to go forward.”
Quarles said, “We’re not gonna go away. It is our commitment to make information available. We have to do that to keep going. Around the world, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press are held in highest regard.
“All you have to do is go to countries where they have a free press ó and it’s not free. A strong country and a strong free press are inseparable. The day our free press goes away is the day democracy goes away.
“The challenges are here. We have to adjust. Two things we can count on are change and more change.”