The newspaper myth

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 5, 2011

By William E.N. Hawkins
Post and Courier of Charleston
National Newspaper Week, Oct. 2-8, is a time to celebrate the unique role newspapers play in our society and dispel the myth that they are going away.
It might be difficult for some to see through the fog of recession and digital disruption, but if you look closely youíll see that newspapers remain quite healthy.
Despite the doomsayers, newspapers are actually growing readership as we find new ways to reach consumers.
While overall revenues are down, so are expenses, and most newspapers remain profitable. In fact, there are more newspapers in the South Carolina Press Association, 115, than there were 10 years ago.
Some of us have had to trim our staffs to adjust to advertising declines tied to the collapse of the housing market and outrageously high unemployment. But those hard choices have not changed our commitment to the kind of local reporting that keeps people connected to their communities.
The reality is that on any given day, most of what people in South Carolina know about their community ó whether from a newspaper, website, mobile app, local television or radio station ó likely emanated from a newspaper story.
The other reality, much to the chagrin of some politicians and media critics, is that most of the real watchdog reporting today is still being done by newspapers. For sure, there is no shortage of bloggers, tweeters, commentators and bloviators. But the real authoritative reporting, the most credible reporting, comes out of newspapers.
There are countless examples across our state from papers of all sizes that continue to take seriously our First Amendment role to shed light on government. Newspapers are still doing the probing stories and pursuing legal remedies to make sure that the publicís business is done in the open.
A Post and Courier series on school bus safety forced the state to start replacing the oldest and most dangerous school bus fleet in the nation. Other reporting in Charleston found high school students reading at a third-grade level, and prompted the school district to shift its focus to literacy.
Beyond just reporting, The Item in Sumter filed suit to force the release of an autopsy report in a controversial police shooting. The Index-Journal in Greenwood went to court to force the Department of Public Safety to release video of a city council memberís DUI arrest, an issue with statewide implications.
Good newspaper reporting remains a staple at newspapers of all sizes. A small paper in Blythewood, appropriately named The Voice, reported on the passage of a bond issue by town council that would have meant a property tax increase to build a $12 million park. After their story, a citizensí petition for a referendum or repeal forced council to rescind the part of the bond issue bringing a tax increase.
And the weekly Free Times in Columbia broke the story of improper campaign spending by the lieutenant governor. The transgression, involving more than 100 violations of campaign finance law, is now before a state grand jury.
That kind of watchdog reporting does not always make newspapers popular, especially with politicians. But complementing the day-to-day reporting of life in our communities, it assures a role for newspapers long after the next digital wave washes ashore.
The digital era has brought with it new opportunities as well as the obvious challenges. When we combine our print, web and mobile platforms, newspapers are reaching more readers than ever.
Through it all, print remains far and away the preferred choice for both readers and advertisers. And why not?
Newspapers are an incredible value. They are easy to navigate, totally portable and delivered to your door seven days a week for less than the price of a bottled water.
Thatís part of our resiliency. Newspapers retain value, and not just for their news content.
Newspapers are still the trusted source for local commerce in most communities. So much so, that on Wednesdays and Sundays in many markets, people are buying up every copy they can find for the coupons.
It has reached a point where some have even resorted to stealing papers.
Not even the dumbest crook will steal something thatís not valuable.

William Hawkins is president of the S.C. Press Association and editor and publisher of The Post and Courier in Charleston.