What Happens When the Newspapers Go Away?

It’s a quiet Sunday and I spent the morning like I do most Sunday mornings, reading the paper. There’s something special about the Sunday paper. It’s bigger, more pages, more space to explore stories deeper. There are more and expanded sections, even the comics get an upgrade.

Toughtimes_newspaperBut through the years, the Sunday paper has slowly diminished. It maintains some of its weight and girth, but only by the proliferation and growth of advertising inserts from Wal-Martand Target and the like. The Sunday news used to take hours to digest. Now it’s just a little bigger than a weekday paper was a few years back.

The weekday papers are smaller too. I’ve begun to supplement our local daily with the USA Today. On weekends I’ll pickup the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, the Sunday New York Times or even the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

I feel like I’m watching a dear old friend, the local daily news, slowly die. The old gal is getting weak. I’ve seen the effect of age on my parents and in-laws and it’s much like that. You can still see the shell of a once vibrant life, but now the frame is weakening, the systems are not as sharp as they once were.

But what scares me is the thought of what happens when the newspapers go away. Historically newspapers have had the time and resources to do in-depth and truly investigative reporting. The local TV news might spend 3 minutes on a city council or local government issue, while the newspaper can run several stories, interview multiple players and dig deep to find the hidden facts and figures. Newspapers were built to find the truth. Too often now television news is driven by sensationalism and a constant struggle for higher ratings.

Here in South Dakota, the newspapers have fought for open government, they’ve chased down conflicts in local and state politics, uncovered misuse of public funds and challenged the status quo like no one person could. The local paper took on traffic safety at the busy intersection near their building and when the result was a red-light traffic camera, they questioned its legality as well. Love it or hate it, our local Argus Leader lives up to its namesake, a mythical beast with a thousand eyes.

It was a couple of tenacious newspaper reporters who uncovered Watergate and brought down a president. Who will do that when the newspaper can’t afford to print any more.

What about radio, you ask? Seriously? It’s either talk radio with an obvious political slant or a local dee-jay reading the stories out of the paper or off the wire service. With the possible exception of sports, local radio does nothing more than regurgitate the news, not report it.

Some claim that websites and blogs will pick up where newspapers leave off, but most blogs are either tied to a political agenda or merely glean the news from other sources and pull it together in one place.

I’ve heard the argument that it was the Drudge Report that brought the Monica Lewinsky scandal to light, but Drudge is unabashedly Republican. Would they have told the story if it was George Bush (either Bush, you chose) who stained the young intern’s dress? I don’t think so.

You could argue that the 24-hour news channels will keep a watchful eye on the government. And they will. Fox News will chase down every morsel if they think they can catch a Democrat in the wrong. CNN and CNBC will watch the Republicans. And The Daily Show with John Stewart will show the blunders of the cable news networks, just to keep them honest. But increasingly, “fair and balanced” means one sided and mean-spirited.

But CNN and Fox News don’t care about the South Dakota legislature or Kermit Staggers’ next attempt at “fiscal responsibility”. Who will keep the public informed in local political races? Who will be our public watchdog?

The internet once seemed it might be the savior and the future of the newspaper business, but most papers got off on the wrong foot. In order to bring more readers to their online sites, they offered the content for free. All the news, with less commercial interruption. Not every thing was there, of course, you gave up the comics but you could get a laugh out of the reader-supplied commentary. The TV listings weren’t as easy to use, but hey, we got this cool digital cable box and it’s way better.

So people started dropping their newspaper subscriptions. A young generation now thinks of the web first for news, and the thought of picking up a printed paper is far from their minds. Some of the staff here at ADwërks, who I consider to be smart and well informed, never picks up a newspaper. They can still tell you what is going on the world, but in their minds (perhaps rightly so) why pay for what you can get for free?

Some papers, like the Wall Street Journal, have always kept some of their news behind a paid wall, and the New York Times recently announced it will go that direction in 2011. But is it too late for our small, home-town papers? Only time will tell.

But I am left with this one question nagging me; what will happen when the newspapers go away?

– Jim Mathis