Obits for the death of the newspaper industry are a bit premature
“All the news that’s fit to print.”
That famous motto has been trumpeted in the upper left hand corner of the masthead of the New York Times since 1896. It was put there by Times publisher Adolph Simon Ochs to set his paper apart from its more sensational competitors by the newspaper that’s won more Pulitzer Prizes than any other.
Fast forward to today and the New York Times’ debt has been reduced to junk bond status. Is it any wonder then that callow publications like the Kamloops Daily News are closing their doors?
Forgive me for being a bit personal here because back in 1977 I cut my teeth as a reporter at the then tri-weekly Kamloops News and over the years I grew as the paper grew and now it’s all over for the funky little paper on Tranquille Road that tried harder and eventually defeated all its competitors until the coming of the Internet in all its digital glory.
But that’s only part of the story as was made clear to me when I put in a couple of calls to my old home town on the banks of the Thompson River and was told in no uncertain terms that the silver bullet that did in the once high-flying Kamloops News was self-inflicted. Seems the News, like so many other small dailies these days, was trying to cut corners wherever they could and had contracted out some of its advertising operations to the Philippines and advertisers in Kamloops said “no way.” Newspapers, after all, are a business and for any business there’s no better way of falling on your sword than pissing off your advertisers. (Sorry for the vulgarity, but there’s no better way of putting it.)
So if you’re wondering how a daily paper failed in a prosperous city of 85,000 this will give you an idea. Yes, it’s true that the News was once a quality editorial publication winning many newspaper awards from its editor on down and I even managed to pick up a few myself, but that’s only a small part of the story in the Digital Age. As Mississippi journalism professor Samir Husni said in his on-line publication, Mr Magazine, “Newspapers in this country are not dying, they are committing suicide.” Husni was referring to the US where 105 newspapers, many of them small dailies like the Kamloops News, have closed since 2009 alone. The same trend is occurring in Canada and around the world as Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Craig’s List, Kijiji and numerous others eat up what used to be almost exclusively newspaper advertising.
Yet even though newspapers “commit suicide” by antagonizing their advertisers there’s hope because there’s one thing good ol’ print on paper does better than anything else – speak truth to power like no on-line publication can. Canadian media consultant Thad McIlroy who publishes the on-line blog “The Future of Publishing” quotes the Aug. 24, 2006 edition of The Economist to illustrate this truism. “The usefulness of the press goes much wider than investigating abuses or even spreading general news; it lies in holding governments to account-trying them in the court of public opinion.”
“People still crave print on paper,” is the way Husni put it in one of his lectures and I well remember a vivid example of this when I was working at the Cranbrook Townsman a few years back and the town was bitterly divided over whether the city should expand its boundaries to include a real estate project on the East Hill. Dozens of angry letters poured into the paper, more than there was room to publish, so the Townsman started to put them up on its web page. That incensed the letter writers even more because all of them wanted their letters to be seen in print on the Letters to the Editor page and not in bits and bytes in cyber space.
Print on paper remains very powerful. Don’t ever kid yourself about that.
I recall a time at the Kamloops News when the paper was hauled up in court on a contempt of court charge because a reporter (not me) reported information covered by a publication ban. The paper was given a tongue-lashing and fined by the judge, but the two radio stations in town that reported the same information earlier weren’t even cited by the judge.
The printed page! A corrupt American president was brought down by the printed page and a morally corrupt British tabloid was forced to cease publishing because it violated the sacred trust of the printed page by invading the privacy of a murdered 13-year-old girl.
Because of the Net, newspapers are undoubtedly going to change in the future, but they’re not going to die.
– Gerry Warner is a retired journalist and Cranbrook City Councillor. His opinions are his own.