Think about this before declaring newspapers ‘dead’

Tom WestOn Sept. 24, a friend of mine, Reed Anfinson, publisher of the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson, was elected president of the National Newspaper Association (NNA).

Upon his inauguration, Anfinson gave a powerful speech about the role of newspapers in our society. His views closely reflect mine, so allow me to pass along some of them.

Anfinson said that several years ago, when he learned in all likelihood he would become the president of NNA, he decided to make a study of the future of newspapers.

Today, one often hears detractors say things like, “Nobody reads newspapers anymore.”

I have said before that those statements are made mostly by unemployed journalists who used to work for big city daily papers. Many of those papers were sold in the past 10 years, and when the recession hit, those that were sold at a premium took a major hit to their profits. The result has been a spiraling down of news-gathering efforts as part of a general cost cutting. That, in turn, has led to a drop in subscriptions as fewer readers find something of interest to them in those papers.

In his speech, Anfinson said, “I have read about how the Internet would provide and that everyone would have a voice; how citizen journalists and bloggers would fill the void left by newsroom cuts; how ordinary citizens would be watchdogs of government, industry, military and the powerful.

“What I’ve learned is both frightening and encouraging. Too many people have the story wrong. Too many people have written off all newspapers because of the plight of overleveraged dailies. Too many people assume the reporting void will be filled when it won’t. Too many people deny that deep cuts are hurting coverage of government and society.

“One inescapable truth has come through this study: There absolutely is no digital revenue stream that will support the journalism we have today. Democracy is in big trouble, though many refuse to see the implications of lost journalism.”

Anfinson recalled that during the Watergate investigation, almost 40 years ago, in which the Washington Post led the way in uncovering crimes committed by the administration of President Richard Nixon, that Washington Post Publisher Catherine Graham was told by one of the newspaper’s accountants that the paper had lost $7 million in advertising since the paper’s coverage of the scandal had begun. Graham replied, “Well, it is a good thing we can afford it.”

The problem today, Anfinson said, is that many newspapers can no longer afford to challenge authority. “As we lose revenue, we are losing our watchdog ability. It is because of our financial strength that we have the ability to challenge power.”

In the last decade, Anfinson said, we have lost a fourth of our journalists. He asked, “How does democracy survive this loss of reporting?”

We live in such partisan times, with the Democrat and Republican stalwarts adopting a take-no-prisoners attitude, that I’m sure many would say that it would be a good thing to get rid of those journalists with whom they disagree.

Conservatives would be happy to see the New York Times disappear. Liberals would be happy to see  the Wall Street Journal evaporate.

Most Americans have no idea how rare are the freedoms of speech and the press that we have. Most nations, even democracies, have tighter restrictions on what can be said about the government and public office holders. Make no mistake, if we don’t fight to hold onto that, those trying to cover up their mistakes and corruption will take it away.

It would take a while for most people to notice what they are missing. They would gradually begin to see that their government had become corrupt. If history is any guide, many citizens would then start to think that democracy doesn’t make a difference. Our great national experiment with self-government would then end, not with a bang, but with a sigh.

Anfinson said of newspapers, “We face an uncertain future and that is inescapable. New challenges come at us nearly daily. There is incredible disruption and change coming in the U.S. Postal Service. Competitors are stealing our content. They have no interest in producing their own original news.”

It has been clear for a long time that newspapers are the last substantive news-gathering force available. Not TV. Not radio. Certainly not bloggers, who depend so heavily on newspaper-gathered information in order to form their opinions.

Anfinson said, “We are the defender of the public’s right to know. We are the ones that lobby state governments on open records, open meetings and published public notice. We are the ones who have the knowledge of the laws that serve the public interest. We are the ones with the attorneys that help us enforce those laws. Will digital businesses with the thin margins spend tens of thousands on lobbying every year? Will they defend the laws of open government?”

Even those who don’t want to admit the problem know the answers.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. He may be reached at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at tom.west@mcrecord.com.

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