Newspapers: I think I’ll hang around

Columnist : Albert Paschall

by Albert Paschall,
Senior Commentator, Lincoln Institute

Ancient Greek mythology featured Sirens. Mythical nymphs half princesses, half bird they sang sweet songs trying to lure sailors’ ships to hit the rocks near the island they lived on. Legend holds that Odysseus filled his sailors’ ears with wax to avoid their song, killing the Sirens forever.

I’ve got four to eight Sirens a day calling me. I’ve tried the wax treatment for the last few months but they have prevailed. Mine are known as Montgomery County’s Times Herald, Philadelphia’s Inquirer and Daily News, Chester County’s Daily Local News with the occasional overdose of USA Today. The end of the week features the weeklies: The Ambler Gazette, The King Of Prussia Courier, The Main Line Times and Radnor’s Suburban and Wayne Times.

I became addicted to newspapers a long time ago. Even traveling abroad I crave the local stuff. But since today so many of them are so busy writing their own obituaries last spring I gave up writing for them. Wall Street seems intent on killing them. Every major publisher featured on the street of dreams is giving shareholders nightmares. Gannett, Lee, Media General and McClatchy are beginning to echo the fate of the late Knight Ridder, the former owners of Philadelphia’s Inquirer and Daily News. Declining revenue at that troubled empire has forced a valiant restoration effort, led by a group of new local owners, into furloughs, suspension of suburban editions and union givebacks.

Trying to please several dozen editors in this state, 26 times a year can be a chore. Nothing is closer to God’s own judgment than an editor writing for his or her own pages. Most of them do and today, too often, most of their staff does too. Pages 3, 5 and the editorial pages are littered with the litany of their lives instead of issues. In-law visits, putting their pets to sleep, hiking in the park or whatever comes to mind is worth several hundred words of their brilliance. We’re expected to pay for their daily diaries. Newspaper political endorsements are a transparent anachronistic throw back to the days when publishers took care of their cronies. Today too often they insult readers and reveal agendas that slant the perspective of other news reporting.

While traditional editors make cracks about front page ads like “another death by a thousand cuts,” the blame for newspapers’ woes usually falls on the Internet. One of the industry’s leading trade publications, Editor and Publisher, seems to delight in reporting the decline of revenue and readership because of online services. It is indeed quite true that unless you have a compelling reason to take your laptop on the beach or in the bathtub why bother buying a paper when you can get all of its news content for free online?

But for every newspaper that may have hit the rocks, there is another success story. The successful ones follow traditional paths and their ad counts reflect that. Their editors are engaged in their coverage and they’ve left national and international affairs largely to broadcast and new media. They concentrate on chronicling the world that begins on our doorstep. The engagement and wedding announcements, the Little League Teams, Girl Scout Troops, our successes, failures and ultimately our deaths. The local zoning board is a beat that matters and whatever goes on at city hall is a front page fixture.

Obviously there are a lot of troubled newspapers that are going to die. Some of them deserve to. Others will perish in shame. The collective voice of a community consciousness will be gone forever. The smart ones will reinvent themselves the way radio did with the onslaught of television. Someday those that do with a healthy respect for the time, intellect and interests of their readers will be revitalized. I think I’ll hang around for that. See you in two weeks.

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