Oct. 2, 2019 — Once upon a time, having a job at a newspaper meant working in one of the most imposing buildings in town, inhaling the acrid aroma of fresh ink and the dusty breath of cheap newsprint and feeling mini-earthquakes under our feet every time the presses started to roll.
For those of us old enough to remember those days, National Newspaper Week 2019 could be one big, fat elegiac nostalgia trip.
Today, many newspapers are ditching the imposing buildings for low-rent storefronts. As University of North Carolina professor Penny Abernathy has documented in her ground-breaking research on the news desertification of America, upwards of 1,300 communities that had newspapers of their own in 2004 now have none.
So here, dear readers, are some facts you need to know:
Newspapers are more than a medium
Increasingly, for both younger and older readers, that low-grade paper with come-off-on-your-hands ink is being replaced by bits and bytes that light up your phone or tablet or computer.
What can’t be replaced, however — and what should never be made obsolete — is the primary function that newspapers have traditionally performed: Deploying reporters, photographers and editors to find and produce stories on everything from natural disasters to political scandals to your neighbor’s golden wedding anniversary.
Why pay for ‘free’ news?
That 25 or 35 cents you used to plunk into a newspaper box didn’t come close to covering what it cost to produce what newsroom denizens like to call “the daily miracle.”
The high cost of public service journalism has always been subsidized by advertisers.
So thank them by showing your support — in their businesses and your subscription.
Social media is not free news
Readers might not notice the hollowing out of newsrooms because today, we have, if anything, too much information at our disposal.
The same digital revolution that blew a hole in newsroom budgets and turned Craigslist and eBay into advertising behemoths also created new paths to publication.
According to a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center, more Americans now get their news from social media than from newspapers.
But not everyone who’s publishing via smartphone and YouTube is a promising writer or videographer giving voice to underserved communities. A lot are peddlers of propaganda, snake oil, disinformation and dissension.
Nor is social media as free as it seems: We pay by providing our personal data every time we log on and, often, every time we make a purchase IRL (in real life).
Social media sites that use data to deliver information that’s likely to keep you on their sites: A resident of Moberly, Mo., who shops at Cabela’s and is Facebook “friends” with Donald Trump supporters is likely to get a very different news feed on Facebook than one who lives in New York City, listens to NPR and “likes” Joe Biden’s Facebook page.
I’m not arguing that we should turn off the Internet and replace it with ink and paper.
What I do think readers can do this National Newspaper Week is become more mindful about their information diet — rather than nutrition-free news snacks we often consume each day.
Supporting real news is a more expensive proposition for readers than it used to be, but it’s cheap when you consider what you’re really paying for.
As my former Gannett News Service colleague, University of Kentucky journalism professor Al Cross put in a bumper sticker he had commissioned a couple years back, “Support democracy: Subscribe.”
Kathy Kiely is the Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.