After witnessing staff layoffs at Heritage Newspapers last month and losing a full-time reporter at The Saline Reporter and Milan News-Leader, I was interested when a friend e-mailed me information about an interactive forum co-hosted by the National Press Club about the future of journalism. So, last night I attended the forum, "Protecting a Free Press while Journalism is in Turmoil," at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor and was reassured, although I knew it from reading about it for the last several years in the Columbia Journalism Review, that our newspapers are not alone as we see a steady drop in advertising, circulation and resulting staff cutbacks.
Among the forum's speakers were representatives from print, online, radio and television as moderator Gil Klein, director of the National Press Club's Centennial Forums, posed questions we're all facing in the media industry and in communities across the country as we try to maintain a free press in the face of a declining economy and evolving industry.
I was particularly struck by a statement Klein shared from a previous panelist, as these forums have been taking place across the country: "This could be the golden age of journalism if we could only find a way to pay for it."
Indeed. As technology advances, newspapers across the country are able to connect faster and in more ways with the public. From posting breaking news online as it happens, to podcasts of press conferences, news videos and the print product itself, newspapers have a variety of tools to deliver the news and get immediate feedback from the public. It's more of an interactive relationship as readers post comments on newspaper blogs and e-mail reporters with comments and story ideas.
As panelist Omari Gardner, news editor of digital media for the Detroit Free Press said, though, it's a double-edged sword. "Now there's an expectation from our readership ... that we give news as we get it." This, the panelists said, can lead quickly to burnout by journalists as they are expected to do more with fewer resources and fewer people on staff to help pick up the slack. News reports may not be as thoroughly researched or sourced in a rush to get the story out and in a variety of formats by a scaled back staff.
Jonathan Wolman, editor of The Detroit News and publisher of its Web site, also among the panelists, said major metropolitan dailies have seen a double digit decline in advertising in their print products and modest gains online. "We've enjoyed an increase in advertising activity (online) ... Can I say it has replaced the lost advertising from the paper itself -- not even close to it," he said. The challenge, he said, is monetizing the news online.
Wolman said advertisers seem as confused as those working in the industry about media and its role as technology advances online, yet excited about the digital universe and what it has to offer in terms of different platforms and delivery methods. In five years, he envisions readers getting their news through hand-held devices with content provided by those surviving the downturn in the industry.
As newspapers go online with news reports in video format and TV news publishes written stories online, Klein asked if there's room for all the players. Vincent Duffy, news director of Michigan Public Radio, said there certainly will be a thinning out of the herd. "There will be some media that will not survive and it's not because of the current economic situation," he said. "It has been coming."
Duffy said despite all the gloom surrounding the newspaper industry as tens of thousands of jobs have been cut and papers scale back in size, public radio is doing well as a nonprofit enterprise. Duffy said his radio reporters not only produce reports over the airwaves, but they're also shooting video and photographs and writing news stories for the Web site. He said in the next five years, he thinks public radio will get bigger and fill some of the void left behind as some newspapers shut down operations. There will be a price to pay, however.
"What we don't have and what we will miss is having a media of record," he said. "We (public radio) don't have the staffs to cover the Detroit City Council (and other municipal boards) ... every time they have a meeting or story to report."
Wolman noted that some big cities may lose their anchor newspapers, particularly in today's struggling economy. He said the bedrock of coverage traditionally has come from newspapers, which, in the past, had larger numbers of journalists and a broader reach. "We see this distress in the news business and it can have terrible repercussions if it doesn't turn around," he said.
Gardner noted that one of the dangers in today's economy and with newsroom cutbacks is that veteran journalists are being let go and younger reporters with less experience and lacking institutional knowledge are being brought in to work at a lower wage. While it might save the newspaper money in salaries, the reporting is not as thorough. "In a knowledge industry, you have to invest in knowledge," he said.
Gardner said for those newspapers that survive the next five years, they will be smaller, more nimble and more customer-oriented, producing news stories that readers want or consider relevant to their lives. Wolman added that sports and entertainment news has become just as important to report as coverage of city hall in order to serve readers' interests.
As Klein said in his opening comments, the newspaper industry is in unusual circumstances, but what everyone must understand is that a free press is essential to a free society and free enterprise. Protecting the mission of a free press and its value to society are crucial, no matter what format the news is presented in.