Craigslist has, for example, torn away newspapers’ once lucrative classified advertising base. Cheap online display ads nibble away at print media’s bread and butter. And it is advertising that pays for the work of journalists and editors who, ideally, serve as the eyes and ears of the public.
There were 689 cities with at least two daily newspapers a century ago, according to Dr. Sam Schulhofer-Wohl, who teaches economics and public affairs at Princeton University. Now it’s more like a dozen.
Whether this is a death knell or a wake up call, however, is a matter of opinion.
Schulhofer-Wohl spoke at the Northern Kentucky University (NKU) forum “News in the Information Age: What Happens to Democracy if the Presses Stop?” that was held March 4 to address these concerns. Other panelists were NKY.com manager Dennis Hetzel; Rich Boehne, CEO of the E.W. Scripps Co., which owned The Cincinnati Post; and New York Times blogger Jacques Steinberg.
“Just because a newspaper closes, maybe we’re not losing what we need to have to have informed citizens,” Schulhofer-Wohl said. “Maybe the things that remain after a newspaper closes and maybe the new media that spring up are enough to replace that.”
Much research has been done on the importance of newspapers that shows that communities with newspapers have better voter turnout, less corruption and incumbents that have a harder time being reelected — in short, a better, more viable democracy. But most of the research was done before the advent of the Internet and looked at the relationships between newspapers and national elections, ignoring local political races.
“When we look around and see that cities with more newspapers are more engaged, is that because the newspapers are making the citizens more engaged or is that because in a place where citizens happen to be engaged, that’s a great place to sell newspapers?” asked Schulhofer-Wohl.
Schulhofer-Wohl studied the impact of The Cincinnati Post’s 2007 closure on local politics and described the experience as a unique opportunity to use Northern Kentucky as a laboratory to test what happens to a region when a newspaper stops printing.
His study found that after The Post closed, fewer people voted in municipal elections in Northern Kentucky suburbs, fewer candidates ran for office, incumbents had an easier time getting reelected and candidates spent less cash on local races.
If people want quality news reporting, though, someone will have to pay.
The New York Times is moving to a paid content model for its Internet site this year, Steinberg said
“I asked him who was going to pay these people to get this information he was going to consume and he said he didn’t know,” Steinberg added.
Subscription fees may work for a national brand, but there probably isn’t enough of a draw among local audiences for this to work, Boehne said.
“We’ve had the most luck in putting content on the Web for free and building an audience around it and trying to sell advertising against it,” he said. “But it doesn’t raise as much revenue as we had in print.”
One advantage of new media, Steinberg said, is the ability for interaction with the audience. Small posts can generate a large discussion. “You just have to set a little bit of kindling and it’s amazing the fire you get in response,” he said.
This can pose a problem in some respects. “There’s a certain cadre of people, even with moderated comments, who want to hijack a blog, especially if you’re dealing with issues of politics,” Hetzel said. “(The Enquirer and NKY.com is) running into the phenomena that some people are saying, ‘I don’t want to post to the blog because I don’t feel like getting attacked and assaulted.’ ” But it could be that this vitriol is just the norm for public discourse.
“The way newspapers worked in the U.S. for the past century is a real anomaly,” Schulhofer-Wohl said. “If you look back at what newspapers were a hundred years ago, it was very rough and tumble. You had the Communist newspaper and the Republican newspaper and the Democrat newspaper and these kinds of silos that we now see on blogs. So it may be that we’re now getting back to a usual form of discourse.
“We had this real anomaly for a hundred years where there was a lot of consolidation and most cities had just a few newspapers and not much competition at those newspapers and the newspapers became very mainstream and moderate,” he added.
No matter how difficult this era is for print media, it’s also something that leads to a freer society, Boehne said. “I, without hesitation, think it does and the best days are still in front of us. We will figure out this enterprise reporting model and we will still supply great enterprise reporting to communities. At the same time communities will have voices that will rise and free speech will be freer than ever before.”
Hetzel responded, saying that Americans have always been more interested in entertainment rather than being informed.
“I don’t know that anything we’re doing is going to change that,” he said. “There’s always going to be a certain segment of the population that are almost aggressive in being disinterested.”