By Al Cross
Our country may not be in a depression, but the newspaper business is, and its fatality rate may be as great at that of the coronavirus. The pandemic and its economic restrictions have accelerated closures and mergers, which have increasingly affected county-seat weeklies, long the most stable type of American newspaper.
The economy is gradually reopening, but with no vaccine or proven treatment, the virus remains a threat, and that threatens a resurgence of covid-19 cases and more economic reversals. To get through this, newspapers need to prove their value, and they need to try new things.
The pandemic is spawning rivers of misinformation, an if there was ever a time for newspapers to reassert their franchise as the main finders of fact for democracy, this is it. But they must remember to assert that on social media, too, and to remind social-media consumers how those media and newspapers differ.
We must repeatedly explain that news media offer journalism, which has a discipline of verification: we emphasize facts, attribute opinion, and clearly separate the two. (That separation has eroded lately, and needs shoring up.) Social media have almost no discipline and no verification, so the facts get lost in a sea of opinion and invective, driven by algorithms giving people what they want, not what they need. They need to know that.
Don’t like online arguments? This is a fight for your life, so you should wage it on all fronts. Ask your critics to cite specifics, and when they do, remind them that it’s easy to pick examples of bad journalism from thousands of reports. As someone who got into journalism as a youth baseball scorekeeper and correspondent, I like to say journalism has a fielding percentage about as good as Major League players, around .984. By my reckoning, we’re fair and accurate 49 times out of 50. We do make two-base errors sometimes, but unlike social media and ballplayers, we correct them.
Philanthropists often want to help students, and that includes student journalists. When many University of Missouri journalism students’ internships fell through, faculty members Kathy Kiely and Damon Kiesow created a pop-up newsroom to produce stories for news outlets across the state, with students paid with funds from the school, the Knight Foundation and alumnus Walt Potter. As paid internships have become less common, students are accepting unpaid internships at community papers, and the relationship is mutually beneficial.
Universities can help in other ways. There is scant published research about community newspapers, and state press associations or newspaper groups should get researchers to examine the relationships of community papers and their audiences – including why they are losing readers and how they might get them back.
Another potential source of help is government – not the direct subsidies that are anathema to most journalists, but public-service advertising during the pandemic. In Kentucky, local governments have financed sample-copy editions of weeklies loaded with information about the coronavirus and preventing covid-19, and there is even more reason to do that now, as we need to take care to prevent a resurgence.
Now also might be a good time for a makeover, to spur single-copy sales. Think about a magazine format like The Canadian Record in Texas, which runs a compelling color photo on the front with blurbs about major features. It goes for $1.50 a copy, and folks in Hemphill County snap it up, because they know it’s good journalism.
Many other ideas are out there, in Pub Aux, state press groups and the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors’ online discussion board and monthly newsletter. The May edition had ideas on advertising, covering covid-19, online journalism, dealing with social media and helping communities get through the crisis.
Ideas are what we need. Not all will work, but our industry is at a juncture much like the bottom of the Great Depression, when presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt called for “bold, persistent experimentation.”
That’s not something for which newspapers are known, especially community papers, but they’d do well to follow it. After all, FDR’s line was written by a newspaper reporter, Ernest K. Lindley of the strongly Republican New York Herald Tribune. When Lindley and other reporters chided him about the lack of zing in his pre-convention remarks, FDR challenged them to draft a speech. “Lindley took the bait,” wrote presidential historian James MacGregor Burns, and bold, persistent experimentation helped save the country. It might save newspapers, too.