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33 chapter two Why Newspapers Must Change Looking out on the media landscape at the turn of the millennium, most publishers of community newspapers could be forgiven for dismissing the pundits and prognosticators who viewed them as technological “dinosaurs.” Despite rapid adoption of the Internet in the previous decade, the business modelseemedtobeholdingstrong.Newspaperadvertisingwasatanall-time high, and profits were healthy. It was hard to imagine, much less believe, that the immediacy, interactivity, and interconnectedness of the Internet would wreak such havoc over the next decade on a 200-year-old industry. Indeed, the extent and pace of change in the media landscape since 2000 has been so extensive that it is mind-boggling to contemplate. Far from being islands safe from the destruction that engulfed large city papers in mid-decade, publications in even the most remote and rural areas of the country have been affected. So while the mission of newspapers is as vital as ever in the digital age, the business model that has supported and funded good journalism in communities large and small is frayed and, in many cases, in tatters. Les High of Whiteville’s News Reporter remembers those “good old days” as “a time—not too long ago—when it seemed we could just sit back and count the money.” Today, with profits squeezed, High worries about how he will fund the sort of watchdog, or “accountability,” journalism that has long been the hallmark of the independently owned, Pulitzer Prize–winning publication . That sort of journalism, he points out, is time- and labor-intensive and requires a willingness by the newspaper to allow reporters to pursue tips that may not pan out. It also requires an ability to pay the legal fees that often result when a newspaper needs to defend itself against threatened libel suits or go to court to get government officials to release certain public documents. What happened? How did the world change overnight for newspapers everywhere in the first half decade of the twenty-first century? Were the seeds of destruction for the old world order already planted? creating a new strategy 34 Before they can begin to chart a course to survival and renewal, community newspaper publishers and editors need to understand why exactly the Internet—unlike radio and television in the twentieth century—has been such an intrusive medium, invading even the smallest and most remote communities, and why it is both a near-term and long-term threat to all newspapers, regardless of size and location. In this chapter, we will first survey the seismic shifts that have occurred in a relatively brief period of time, comparing the stable world of the latter half of the twentieth century to the current news ecosystem, which is in transition and, at times, appears to be in convulsive flux. And then, because every community and market is unique, we will analyze how these changes in the macroenvironment play out on a local level, eroding everything from yearly profit to customer loyalty and engagement with the newspaper. The Internet has attacked both the cost and revenue structure of the traditional newspaper business model. That is why newspapers who wish to survive must change the way they do business in the twenty-first century. How the Media Landscape Has Changed In retrospect, the “good old days” of the 1980s and 1990s—when profit margins at small community newspapers routinely exceeded 20 percent— seem an economic aberration. Writing in 1991 in the pre-Internet era, media historian Donald Shaw noticed that the decline of a mass medium, such as newspapers, is always anticipated by the rise of a “new” medium that displaces it. And indeed, the heyday of newspapers—the era when the number of papers in this country peaked—was the early 1920s, before the emergence of radio as a mass medium. Newspapers weathered the assault—first by radio in the 1920s and 1930s and then by television in the 1950s and 1960s—by retreating into their local communities. What followed was a fifty-year war of attrition between dueling, competing newspapers in individual cities and towns around the country. By the 1980s, most communities, large and small, were served by only one newspaper. Looking back on the latter decades of the twentieth century, Columbia University economist Eli Noam noted: “tv and radio took away some news audience and advertising, but they were not a substitute for longer news stories or many types of advertising, such as classified. The surviving papers were therefore profitable...


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MARC Record
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