Demand for local news (and newspapers) is fairly constant

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 21, 2008

Is it just me or is there a hint of glee when TV and Internet folks tell us times are tough for newspapers?

Well, whether they are happy about it or not, they’re right — at least to a degree. The printed word has seen better days. It’s just that people have more choices these days — and that’s not a bad thing.

But “thud in the driveway” newspapers are not anywhere near becoming the detritus of history, and that’s especially true for community papers of the variety that are available to most people in Mississippi.

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The world needs reporters —  well, some reporters.

There are reporters who decide what the story is or should be and then go out and find official types who will affirm the reporters’ viewpoints. We have enough of those.

And there are the kind — mostly in smaller media markets — who do yeoman-like work. We need more of them. They sit through the trials. They go to the city council and school board meetings. They listen to the athletes and coaches and to the campaign speeches. They pore over the public records, interview the sheriff, spend hours on the phone tracking down a state trooper for information on a wreck. They go to the ribbon cuttings and press conferences. They read more bills than most legislators. And then they “report” their findings in as straightforward a manner as humanly possible.

Indeed, it’s the work of this shrinking latter group that has always fed community newspapers and now also feeds talk radio hosts, roundtable discussions featuring journalists interviewing each other and an abundant and ever-increasing amount of blather on the Internet and elsewhere. I’ll admit it. Without reporters who report — who do the original work — commentary columns such as this one could not exist.

Now many don’t know this, but what’s going on with corporate newspaper companies is a lot like what has happened to American car companies.

A couple of weeks ago there was the story about the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing of Tribune Co., publisher of the largest newspaper in Chicago and several others.

An implication was that the paper wasn’t profitable. But anyone who read past the first few lines of the story would realize something quite different. The newspaper still has enough ads and subscribers to cover its production costs and make some money for the owners — the definition of profitable. It was not, however, making enough money to cover the debt load the guy in the big office had taken on.

The Tribune’s key owner, Sam Zell, made what amounted to a $315 million investment when he took the company into private ownership in April 2007, but he expected the company to carry $11 billion in debt. It was like you or me having a $600 bank note on a rental house that couldn’t bring in more than $500 a month.

Similarly, newspaper readers know General Motors and Toyota sold the exact same number of cars worldwide in 2007. But while Toyota posted a $17 billion profit in sales, GM closed its books showing $34 billion in red ink. Why? Because GM owed so much to banks and other lenders that the money it made selling each car or truck (profit) was already pledged to debt.

Although 57 percent of Mississippians responding to a Stennis Institute survey in 2007 identified themselves as newspaper subscribers, newspaper readership is down, especially in major markets. It has been falling by about 1 percent per year for more than 15 years. Today, about 12.6 million households buy a paper each day.

Things could be worse and they are — for television. Since 1980, viewership on the three commercial nightly newscasts has fallen by half with ABC, NBC and CBS getting about 8 million viewers each — out of more than 300 million Americans.

No need for any tit-for-tat, though. Television stations, newspapers and magazines and radio stations have almost all established Internet sites. Most are news-centered, with chatter as an added attraction.

Journalists of tomorrow are being taught to report “across platforms,” meaning people with Internet access and high-speed connections can navigate to media-operated Web sites and read stories, listen to audio and see still pictures and video — regardless of whether the site is managed by a print or broadcast company.

The core reality is that people need information to perform their civic responsibilities, they like to know how their ball team or favorite athlete is performing and they like to be entertained, too. Combine that with the fact that advertisers don’t want to overspend but will not be rebuffed in getting their message to the clients and customers they target and newspapers — especially smaller, community-oriented newspapers — will be with us for quite a while.

Few will admit “liking the media.” That’s OK, perhaps even appropriate. After all, even the news about newspapers is not precisely what it seems.


Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail