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Opinion: Despite assurances, looks like newspapers are dying to me

April 3rd, 2011 Posted in Opinion

Column & Photo by Shirrel Cooper

LOGAN—I have been a journalist since I was 15 and joined my junior high newspaper class.

I have attended conferences about journalism, taken classes on how to be a better reporter, worked for various newspapers, and written countless articles. And all the while I have been told “newspapers are dying, so if you want to survive in this industry, you need to broaden your skills. You won’t make it anywhere if you are just a good journalist.”

Of course this is true, I told myself. I had watched part of the industry change. At my internship over the summer, the emphasis was being moved toward the digital/online edition of the paper, and everyone—everyone—was being forced to conform, broaden their skill sets, and change.

Some went willingly, some not so much. One of my greatest friends and mentors, who had seen the newsroom in different places across the country, was especially unwilling. He was near retirement and did not want to hassle with putting content on the Web. I felt bad for the poor girl who was attempting to train him. And I felt bad for him—he had been working in the newspaper business for the better part of his life and suddenly he had to adapt to the times.

As a journalist in today’s world, you really won’t get far unless you have skills that go beyond reporting. Photography, video, and Web knowledge are vital.

I am lucky. I have been attending a university that recognizes these changes and is evolving its journalism program to serve its students and help them get jobs in an industry that is dying.

I know newspaper death and newspaper change are two different things. But honestly, they go hand in hand. Newspapers have to change or they will face certain death.

And even then, changing does not guarantee anything. The newspaper where I spent my internship was becoming smaller. The advertisements were not there to cover the costs needed to print a full paper. I watched as articles were cut, never to see the presses, and how things were moved to online only. It’s hard work for a journalist to write a story that never makes it into the paper because the funding is just not there.

In spending a summer with a newspaper that was doing what it could do to stay alive, I learned firsthand that the newspaper is dying—the newspaper that I grew up with, the paper I stole from my parents so I could read the comics, will not last in the digital age unless it adapts. I know that I contribute to this demand: I would rather Google the news than open the paper. I don’t have time to sit with a newspaper and peruse its contents. I loved doing it during my internship, but as a student, I don’t have the time or the energy.

You can imagine my shock when I heard that Nancy Conway, the editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, was going to speak at USU about “the myth of the dying newspaper.” To say I was intrigued would be an understatement, and I jumped at the chance to cover her lecture for the Hard News Café.

The speech started out great—she discussed how important journalism is to democracy and how the digital revolution is changing the way we communicate. I couldn’t agree more. However, the rest of the speech left me squirming in my seat and wanting to stand up and shout that she was contradicting herself.

She spoke of how newspapers aren’t going anywhere, and that nationally the information available doesn’t show that newspapers are dying off like flies.

“Traditional legacy newspapers like The Salt Lake Tribune are doing better than just holding their own,” she said. “In the state of Utah, I would like to point out that we are still here, still in business.… As far as I know, none of us are going anywhere anytime soon.”

But then she spoke of how the Trib has had to join the digital world to survive.

“Time is critical in transition into digital and we have been able to pace ourselves reasonably well,” Conway said. “We have learned, coached, trained ourselves and our staff in the fine art of web publishing—a whole new business for a lot of old-fashioned people.”

Is that not admitting that the newspaper is dying? In order to remain in business, the Tribune, just like every other newspaper in the country, had to transform into more than just a traditional ink-and-newsprint newspaper. Clearly, the myth of the dying newspaper isn’t dead.

The money is not there to keep newspapers running. Conway said this when she talked about the Trib’s parent company.

“MediaNews Group, the parent company of The Salt Lake Tribune, filed for prepackaged Chapter 11 reorganization last year. They were in and out of court in 45 days,” she said. “With the debt burden relieved and our revenue trend up, we are showing growth and meeting all our financial obligations.”

She said that money to support the newspaper has had to come from new places; MediaOne, the company that manages the joint business operations of both the Tribune and the Deseret News, is expanding its businesses to do this.

“What my organization is doing is subsidizing their real estate business, they’re running a web design business, they’re running an advancement business, they sponsor the governor’s economic council,” Conway said. “They’re doing all those things, plus they’re publishing a lot of weeklies and monthly magazines and other things to support the newsroom.”

Clearly the traditional paper newspaper is dying. Conway admitted as much when she talked about how it was vital for newspapers to expand to an online medium as well. This transition to Web is just one example of why journalists today are learning new skills to survive in this job market. And the fact that Conway alluded to this but still refused to face reality—that traditional newspapers are a dying breed—really makes me mad.

Denial is not healthy, especially when the facts are clear. The digital age is here and newspapers need to get on the bandwagon now or face certain death. I don’t think newspapers are going to cease to exist, especially if they are changing with the times as The Salt Lake Tribune has done. But I do think that that needs to be made blatantly clear. Especially for journalism students, the future reporters Conway was talking to on Tuesday.

How are they going to prepare when they are made to believe that the industry is as strong and as solid as ever? It is a lot more complicated than that. I know this. I was a small part of an online evolution at a newspaper last summer. I saw the stories that hit the cutting-room floor, and I realized that as skilled as I thought I was before the internship, if I want to be a reporter in this day and age, I need to evolve as well. As much as I have been preparing for the “dying newspaper,” I haven’t been doing enough.

Luckily I—and that room full of students who listened to Conway’s speech—am attending a university that recognizes this trend and is preparing me to go out into the news industry fully prepared to take on its changes. And luckily they aren’t denying the obvious.

Conway said that newspapers need to change “because readers are migrating to the Web.”

This is apparent. It is safe to say that every journalist would agree that this is fact.

I just wish Conway had acknowledged that this is evidence of the dying newspaper. She basically said as much in her speech. Where is the newspaper business going if one of its leaders won’t even accept that newspaper death is a very real thing? It’s probably going where the newspaper has been headed since the rise of the Internet.


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