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Why I Hate New Year's Eve

By Ben L. Kaufman · August 1st, 2007 · Media, Myself & I
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When CityBeat published its obituary for The Cincinnati/ Kentucky Post early this year, we didn't gloat over the prospect of becoming the region's "other" paper. Rather, it's an opportunity we embrace now that Scripps finally has confirmed that the region's afternoon paper will die New Year's Eve.

That doesn't make it easier to read the Page 1 headline, "The Post to say farewell Dec. 31," and Editor Mike Philipps' accompanying editorial page column.

For those with a taste for coincidence, the other story atop Page 1 that day says reading is in serious decline despite Harry Potter books.

Oh, there are rumors that The Post might continue online or businessman Bill Butler might keep it alive in Northern Kentucky, where it draws most readers. Whatever the substance of those rumors, publishing realities prevailed.

Afternoon papers were in trouble when The Enquirer and The Post signed their joint operating agreement (JOA) in the mid-1970s. The JOA wasn't a sinister Gannett move to kill the competition. Both sides benefited from the deal; we all benefited from Post reporting and opinions. As Philipps put it, the JOA was a 30-year reprieve from an earlier death.

Many Tri state residents angrily misconstrue the JOA, saying Gannett owns The Post and damning it as a monopoly. Misunderstanding arises in part because both papers' names are on the same delivery trucks.

Had critics bought and read both papers thoughtfully, their error would have become clear. Post journalists treasure their independence and enjoy kicking ass even as their number and resources decline. They're at least equal to The Enquirer in talent and commitment. Over the years they've also demonstrated the value of a journalists' union. I've said this before: They are skilled, productive competitors and fine colleagues. Decades of Enquirer poaching is one measure of their value.

Demographics arising from economic and social changes are killing The Post. A workingman's paper, it appeals to readers who leave before The Enquirer arrives. Think factory jobs. Remember factory jobs?

Generations took The Post home to read after dinner. When it negotiated the JOA, The Post was the larger paper six days a week but not the more prosperous. It was, to use the language of a JOA, a financially "failing" newspaper. The Enquirer also published on Sunday.

The papers together were selling almost 400,000 daily papers then. In trade-speak, that market penetration never was achieved again. Today's combined circulation is about half that total despite growing numbers of households.

A related demographic change involves relative affluence. Let's call it social/economic class. A workingman's paper has fewer college grads and affluent white-collar readers than one whose news and opinion columns clearly identify with local power structures. Tri state poor don't generally subscribe to daily papers or buy them on the street.

Put another way, The Enquirer brings a richer, better educated audience to its advertisers as the region's employment profile changes.

I grieve when a paper dies. Three of the four dailies I worked for are dead. One, The Minneapolis Star, was an afternoon paper. It's now The Minneapolis StarTribune, a morning paper.

I closed another of those dailies on a New Year's Eve decades ago. I still hate New Year's Eve. I hope Mike Philipps and his colleagues deal with it better than I have.

It might be satisfying to pour newsprint ashes on my head in harmony with breast-beaters who complain that Cincinnati is becoming a "one newspaper town" -- but it's not true.

We're not even a one-publisher town, although Gannett owns The Enquirer and most local community weeklies. For those who believe that local news is paramount, we hardly are bereft.

· CityBeat offers growing coverage beyond entertainment and the arts.

· Cincinnati Herald, Metro Neighbors, Downtowner, Business Courier, CincyBusiness, Cincinnati Magazine and Women & Business provide local coverage. So do American Israelite, Catholic Telegraph in Cincinnati, Messenger in the Covington Diocese, the University of Cincinnati's News-Record, Northern Kentucky University's Northerner and, for the moment, blogger Jason Haap's print edition, Cincinnati Beacon.

· Non-Gannett dailies in Dayton, Middletown and Hamilton push against Enquirer northern expansion.

· Local broadcasters are additional news sources, even when they concentrate on cheaply obtained police stories and/or images. Going against this "If it bleeds, it leads" formula is WVXU (91.7 FM), whose local news frequently is solid, sometimes wacky but rarely dull.

· Bloggers' original reporting and commentary complements mainstream news media and sometimes teases reporters into doing the same or similar stories.

All of this is meaningless to neighbors who impress pollsters and politicians with their willful ignorance of life beyond cornhole boards and sports. They resist reading, watching and listening to news; too many read, watch and listen to partisan commentators in the foolish belief they're getting news. They're confident of their knowledge and -- gods help us -- act upon it, even when shown they're wrong.

It's not going to get better in the traditional sense. Relatively few Americans take time for a daily paper or evening network news. When they do, they don't consume; they nibble. We've known for decades that those long, thoughtful prize-winning investigative stories rarely get read to the end.

If a story is read to the fifth paragraph, that is success -- today maybe second or third paragraph, unless it's about a jailbird heiress. So the brevity we frequently damn is really an informed response to reader reality. It's just not satisfying for anyone craving an understanding of the world.

Polls show that few teenagers and young adults read a daily paper. I believe it. Among my journalism juniors and seniors at NKU and UC, few report looking at a paper or turning to broadcast, cable or Internet news every day.

In other words, audience numbers for all news media suggest that too many Americans know too little to motivate them to vote and too little to evaluate candidates' policies.

Also, with so many sources and stunning credulity regarding Internet sites, Americans who vote or care about public policy no longer share a common body of information on which to base debates and decisions.

There never was a golden era in which all of our neighbors informed themselves, but today's fragmentation is worrisome.

If there are answers, one might be Gannett's approach: Papers now are 24/7 information centers. They operate with the speed of a news service, draw on more reporters than any other medium and deliver their work in any form we request.

No "paper" can afford to offer itself once every 24 hours. It must have an Internet site to which we can turn when impatience overcomes our desire to sit down with the paper.

The catch is the same as in the old days: Accuracy and depth are the inevitable casualties of speed. But speed and its ability to build and retain audiences might assure survival.

So where do we go from here?

Most local news media will continue as they are, but The Enquirer increasingly will emphasize stories that draw the most eyes to its Web sites, often at the expense of more substantive stories about which readers need to know.

Audience is everything to advertisers, even if critics believe the medium is depreciated by trivialization.

Audience is numbers, not knowledge. Ask The Post.



Ben L. Kaufman teaches journalism ethics at Northern Kentucky University.
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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