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Guest Essay

Guest Essay

Three Keys to Newspaper Survival

By Bill Kovach

Since science first harnessed subatomic particles to move information more quickly through wires or the air than with ink on paper, it has been assumed the newspaper industry was not long for this world. But despite wave after wave of scientific advance, from the telegraph and the telephone to radio and television, newspapers have endured.

They no longer have the field to themselves. Their reach is smaller. Editors and star writers are no longer celebrities. But the newspaper survives, and thrives.

Newspapers have defied predictions by adapting to each new competitive environment in two ways.

The first is economic. Newspapers have adopted the new technology to become more efficient and incorporated the technology to create new economic possibilities.

In the 19th and early 20th century they put the speed of the telegraph and telephone to work to produce multiple daily editions of newspapers that allowed them to broaden their base and attract the commercial advertising that freed them from the need for political patronage.

When radio and then television threatened, they bought out the competition to concentrate ownership and invested to turn competition into profit. Those adjustments of the business of news have been closely studied and are well known.

But the survival of the newspaper industry has been assured by an equally important but lesser-known adjustment that accompanied those waves of change. This has been the steady professionalism of the journalism by which each new threat has been met, by providing increasingly more valuable and compelling information in print.

In the 19th century that meant developing news of wider appeal on which to build a new business model serving the rapidly expanding circulation possibilities of an urbanizing America. The electronic threats of the 20th century were met by a steady sharpening of professionalism with the introduction of schools of journalism, the progressive move toward a methodology of objective newsgathering and presentation, and proliferating professional organizations that encouraged standards and monitored performance.

The credibility of rising standards brought brand loyalty that has been critical to the continued survival of newspapers. That credibility has been critical because the fundamental strength of the newspaper business is its constitutional protection, which offers privileges of access and a special measure of autonomy to journalists in return for providing the public with independent, timely accounts of their life and times.

Once again it seems that newspapers remained competitive by following the
tried and true formula of adopting and adapting the new technology to find a new business plan.

But some numbers in this report suggest newspapers are maintaining competitiveness at the expense of enhanced professionalism in the newsroom. What were once described as short-term reductions of the number of reporters and editors, which began in the late 1980s, have continued into the new century.

It is a trend that could undermine the historic competitive edge that newspapers have enjoyed and could defeat the two-part formula of adapting and adding value that have kept newspapers in the game these past 100 years and more.

The cutbacks threaten to weaken newspapers and feed an atmosphere in which niche ideological marketing that profits by devaluing the journalism of verification has taken root and is growing. We are seeing this taking root at a time when the cost of the failure to invest in strengthening newsrooms was starkly demonstrated by the Jason Blair scandal at The New York Times, the Jack Kelley scandal at USA Today and the “60 Minutes” scandal at CBS Television.

An important factor in each of those scandals was a reduction of the infrastructure of the newsrooms that allowed a culture to develop that weakened the process supporting a journalism of verification.

And the cost of that in the rupture of the compact between the public and journalism is also seen in this report. Even though newspaper readership is at 100 million and overall interest in national and international news is increasing, 53% of Americans say they “often don’t trust what news organizations are saying.”

So far, newspapers have responded to new challenges with what has worked
in the past, adopting and adapting new technology to build a new economic model. But they have neglected to strengthen the value of what their newsrooms create.

One important way to do so in a time of limited resources is by taking continuing training seriously. Training that develops among a staff the kind of critical thinking that is required to extract meaning from the flood of events and add the value of proportion, context and relevance to their reports.

A second important step involves our relationship with our audience. In a world in which political and commercial institutions create alternative virtual worlds that compete with the world of reality journalism presents, it is even more important that newsrooms develop a new relationship with the public. A new relationship that brings alienated readers into the decision-making process of the newspaper and into the agenda-setting of its editors.

And finally, a third key step involves our relationship with the next generation of readers. A relationship that goes beyond the traditional Newspapers in Education program. News organizations should be encouraging curriculum that educate young people in their roles as citizens in their community and to become critical consumers of timely, verified, independently produced information. Newspapers should be leaders in an effort to introduce civic literacy in our school to help create an informed demand for their work.

Bill Kovach is the Founding Chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.