“I’m tired of reading yesterday’s news tomorrow,” a friend complained about his local daily newspaper. “I’m not going to pay to get Saturday’s ball scores in Monday or Tuesday’s paper.” The once proud newspaper profession has been humbled and weakened, causing concerns about the future of informing the public.
Let me be clear from the outset. Even with their problems and shortcomings I strongly encourage you to support your local newspaper by subscribing to it, just as I want you to support your local radio and television stations by buying from their advertisers.
We begin by understanding the mission of the news business. It is equally divided between disseminating news while generating enough revenues to pay the costs of so doing and making some profit. Not too many years ago we knew the owners and publishers of papers, seeing them in church, at civic or social settings. But you can count on your fingers the number of papers still owned locally and they struggle to remain true to their mission. Most papers are part of a large chain, generally financed by hedge funds, and their mission appears to be to eke out a profit, not so easy as it once was. The same is true with television and radio stations. But that’s not the only change.
Journalism itself changed, venturing from the who, what, when, where, why and how of the story. When I first started, if a reporter had a slant, bias or opinion about a story it was inserted on the editorial page, not the front page. Watergate was a big catalyst for change, as reporters recognized they needed to be more adversarial, questioning those in positions of leadership. But the style of reporting also changed, evolving more into human-interest stories. Sometimes it was hard sorting out the facts from how the story impacted a person or group. These journalistic style changes led too many papers too far to the left, forgetting this is a center-right state. They lost subscribers, who now had other options for news.
Management also failed to grasp the impact of the Internet and how fast it changed us. They couldn’t figure out how to monetize online news, wanting to charge readers for articles the public could receive online for free. Classified ads, a principal source of revenue, disappeared, moving to free listings on the web. As the ratio of operating costs (especially of printing and delivering hard-copy papers) to revenues got further out of balance, papers raised subscription prices and fired reporters, essentially giving up their exclusive franchise of in-depth local reporting. Readers quickly realized they were paying more to get less and cancelled their subscriptions. Many who remained quipped they did so in order to read the obituaries, which became a major revenue source for papers. Add to these problems the fact that Millenials, Generation Y and Z young people never developed the habit of reading hard-copy papers, getting all their news online.
What’s the future everyone (including those in the profession) is asking?
Here’s my spin: The big question is who will pay for trusted, independent, accurate and timely dissemination of news? The Bible admonishes us against putting new wine in old wineskins, a recognition that the news business has to change. We cannot and should not depend on social media and many Internet sources; one can say, make claims, accuse or fabricate almost anything on these sites, with no vetting whether a statement is true or not. Making decisions based on faulty or misleading information is a recipe for disaster.
Some say the news profession will turn to donors to fund news delivery, but this is vexing; one has to question how these contributors will influence the slant of the news we receive. The UNC school of journalism is currently under questioning as to whether a major contributor to their school might have influenced a hiring or tenure decision. Nobody wants their news coverage influenced by the largest donor.
The sad but simple truth is that the news profession itself must humbly acknowledge their shortcomings and have the courage to fix what’s wrong.
We face many questions as we look into the future, but none so important as reestablishing trust, and that needs to start with making sure the news we get is sound and truthful. It has to be the foundation on which we stand.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program NC SPIN that aired 22 ½ years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org