Blowing Smoke

Columnist : Albert Paschall

Back in high school I started in the newspaper business. I was a messenger for the Norristown Times Herald and I loved it. The noisy newsroom, the churning ad department, the roaring presses and throughout the entire building everybody smoked.

So much has changed. Last year when I had the chance to visit Journal Register Company’s state-of-the-art printing plant in central Chester County I didn’t recognize it. No chaos, no leaking cans of ink, no noise and of course, no smoking.

Like a lot of businesses in the digital age newspapers have undergone dramatic changes over the last decade. Spurred by the pioneering efforts of Gannett’s USA Today, companies like JRC, Newhouse, Tribune-Review Media and Media General have adopted contemporary formats, stylized writing and bolder graphics.

In the Commonwealth they seem to be particularly strong. According to a 2005 study commissioned by the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association 61% of the state’s adults read a newspaper on an average weekday, 15% higher than the national average. Seventy percent of Pennsylvanians read a Sunday newspaper and in an average week 90% of the state’s adults will have read a newspaper. Nearly 80% of those readers are college graduates. Across the country there are healthy signs for the industry. In 2003 daily newspapers had circulation of more than 55 million with Sunday editions reaching almost 59 million. Responding to the growth of new communities, in just 8 years 124 new weekly newspapers were started across the country with circulation of over 50 million.

But not all the news about newspapers is good. Blaming the demands of Wall Street, papers across the country are cutting news staffs. It’s happening in Boston, Orlando, and San Jose with some of the biggest cuts coming at media giant Knight Ridder’s Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. About 100 news staffers have been bought out of their jobs.

In last year’s presidential race, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News were among the most aggressive Kerry supporters in the country. The Daily News proclaimed itself to be the first newspaper in America to endorse the Senator, weeks before the actual nominating convention. The Inquirer ran a 21-day serial endorsement of the Kerry/Edwards ticket. Some 12,000 words angered so many subscribers that allegedly the executive editor had to join other editors on phone banks trying to win back disgruntled readers.

Like typewriters and smoke-filled newsrooms, an aggressive endorsement like this is a throwback to another time: the fall of 1960. Senator John Kennedy carried the day over Vice President Richard Nixon. Historians believe that Kennedy’s performance in America’s first televised debates gave him a narrow win. In the last 45 years a stunning transformation in global communications has forced newspapers into enormously different roles. Today’s readers are still likely to accept the editorial prerogative of endorsing a candidate. But in a state where 80% of newspaper readers are college graduates, a 21-day endorsement rings of arrogance that newspapers can no longer afford.

Arrogance has a price. Some of Knight Ridder’s largest shareholders are calling for the company to be sold. The response of the Inquirer’s editors has been to run stories blowing smoke about the sorry state of the industry and how awful competition is. Such stories do a grave, disturbing, disservice to the people who work hard every day to build great newspapers.

Newspapers are coping with the digital age. They’re conquering the Internet and competing well with taxpayer-subsidized advertising competition from the US Postal Service. If the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News are sold, the buyer will undoubtedly pay a high price for the franchise, and with that investment someday bring these newspapers into the 21st century.

Albert Paschall
Senior Fellow
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.

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