By Toan P. Do
City on a Hill Press Reporter
Newsstands all around the nation were uncharacteristically empty on Jan. 21, 2009.
People all over the country scrambled out to their front porches or to news vendors everywhere salivating for the day’s headlines.
The New York Times’ front page read, “Obama Takes Oath, and Nation In Crisis Embraces the Moment.”
The L.A. Times had a similar headline: “Obama calls for hope in face of cold reality.”
This was the morning after President Barack Obama’s inauguration. This first day of his presidency is one that Americans are sure never to forget, because the day’s publications were impossible to find by afternoon. People were even selling copies of both the New York and Los Angeles Times on eBay, knowing those who missed out would be craving their own copy of the day’s historic headlines.
Many young adults still turn to big-name publications like The L.A. Times and The New York Times for big news, but they don’t walk out of the house on an average day, coffee cup in hand, wrapped in a bathrobe, to read the morning’s headlines anymore. They don’t regularly crowd newsstands, frantically trying to buy the latest issue.
Instead, they open up their web browsers.
Former Santa Cruz Sentinel editor Tom Honig, who recently wrote an article on the death of print news, says in the first line of his story, “When I stepped down as editor of the Sentinel a year ago, I knew the outlook for newspapers was not good. But I couldn’t have imagined the destruction of an entire industry, that now seems inevitable.”
As Honig and many other industry insiders have asserted, print media is, no doubt, suffering. Why these publications are actually faltering can and has been attributed to many different influences. However, with the ever-growing move toward online information, the real worry is whether or not printed publications will be considered the most essential sources of information for anyone, ever again.
Print media has come a long way since its beginnings during the Industrial Revolution. Today, the world’s online community is vast — and growing bigger and stronger by the day, rendering many industries obsolete.
Conn Hallinan is a columnist for Foreign Policy in Focus. He is also a former Kresge College provost, and a UC Santa Cruz anthropology and journalism professor.
“If you talk about the decline of print media, I would ask ‘Why?’” Hallinan said. “If you looked at print media in the ’80s and ’90s, what you would find was that print was most profitable … [but] there are a couple things that happened historically. When the Internet got up and running, and things like Craigslist came along, they had a dramatic effect.”
Hallinan went on to explain that personal and commercial advertisements, paired with subscription costs, used to represent a newspaper’s main source of income. Thus, as online communities sprouted up offering these same services for a significantly lower price, or even for free, print media had to scramble for sources of revenue to make printing possible.
“In the old days, at the [San Francisco] Chronicle or [San Jose] Mercury News you had page after page of personal ads, then that simply disappeared,” Hallinan said. “The other thing that happened was … during the ’80s, particularly when the Reagan administration came in, newspapers and media empires were basically allowed to form these enormous conglomerations.”
The development of large newspaper conglomerations resulted in a thriving newspaper business for a short time, but following the Internet boom, many of them ran into tough financial times.
“As an industry, I think our biggest issues have to do with ownership and the economy,” said Tom Moore, online editor for the Sentinel. “So many newspapers are owned by companies that are deeply in debt. Net income isn’t what it used to be, but individual papers remain viable businesses.”
In the old days, reading the newspaper in the morning with a cup of coffee was as natural a pairing as milk and cereal.
The alarm clock would ring, the robe and slippers would go on, and the day’s news would be waiting outside, delivered by a local boy on his bicycle paper route.
“My husband? The newspaper is the line for him,” said Robin Somers, former journalist and UCSC professor. “That’s where the day starts, opening up the newspaper. There’s something aesthetic and more real about it that connects me more to the actual news that’s discovered.”
Somers isn’t alone in this feeling. Many people read print media ritualistically, day-in and day-out, and have for all of their lives.
“There’s just something about it,” said fourth-year environmental studies major Tia Lebherz. “I’ll gladly wake up a half-hour early for that moment with coffee and the paper in the morning. My house gets the SF Chronicle every day.”
It is this dedication that leads Tom Moore to believe that, while perhaps less relevant for some, print media still has an essential place in the news world.
“There’s a whole generation that has grown up with a very good habit of reading the print edition,” he said. “For many of our most loyal customers, the print edition is the primary way of staying informed.”
At the same time, nostalgia isn’t necessarily all newspaper readerships care about. Local newspapers often serve as the backbone of the community, shaping its identity and informing members of what is going on within their own local world.
The Sentinel, for example, is a staple of the Santa Cruz community. For many years it was centrally located in Santa Cruz, where it has been providing accredited print journalism to the community since 1856.
Just recently, though, the Sentinel relocated to nearby Scotts Valley due to cost cutting and budget issues.
“[The Sentinel] was a paper that was located in the center, in the heart of downtown,” Somers said. “And even if there was a conservative bend, it covered the news a lot more thoroughly than it does now. Now you see they are in Scotts Valley, covering Santa Cruz. So the connection you want [to have] to get the community reading the newspaper has been disconnected, just by virtue of reducing staff … and changing location.”
The Information Power-Shift
When Napster hit the online community in the late ’90s, the music industry was changed forever. Artists thought the free music-sharing community would be the end of their profits. Music labels believed that file-sharing would put them out of business.
The present predicament for printed media is strikingly similar. Every day, more and more people cancel their monthly or yearly newspaper subscriptions, opting instead to get their news from the free online versions of the newspapers they used to pay for.
“A lot of times the articles are shorter and much more to-the-point,” fourth-year environmental studies and economics major David Soffer said of his experiences with online, versus printed, news. “You can learn about more current events in less time. In the daily life of a student who is always running around taking care of stuff, it makes getting information a lot easier.”
Despite his ties to the print media industry, Moore says that he understands why so many people have turned to Internet sources for their news.
“I love online information. I love the immediacy and versatility,” Moore said. “I love that stories can be told with words, pictures, maps, audio and video and that all of those elements can be combined and … easily shared around the world. The Internet has been good for newspapers — it gives us more tools to tell stories, more ways to share information, which is the most important thing we do in the newsroom.”
Somers also sees the benefits of online news resources.
“You can post, you have that public forum going on,” Somers said. “That’s another dimension. There’s that immediacy of posting comments and [having] that discussion.”
Because many news-seekers recognize these same benefits, and because the news industry is keen to the fact that people have become accustomed to getting information immediately, many local and smaller publications have joined the larger ones in giving increased importance and priority to their online presence.
With such tremendous news resources available everywhere there is Internet access, print media’s place in the news world has become increasingly ambiguous.
“As we move toward the Internet, I’m not sure it’s going to be quality information,” Hallinan said. “I do believe that you need to do journalism. It’s not just sitting down and writing what you think.”
The standard for print journalism has always been to find quality sources, perform extensive research, and have in mind a “show-your-work” mentality. Since most articles found online are exact copies of articles that go to print in major publications, that level of journalistic quality is maintained. Without print media backing them up in the future, though, online news material may also suffer when it comes to factuality and readability. Hallinan believes that this could have more serious, negative and far-reaching effects than the public may understand.
“I do think that we are suddenly faced with a real potential crisis in democracy,” Hallinan said. “Because the question of what people know, and how they got to know it, is essential to democracy. If you don’t have information, you can’t make choices, and I don’t know whether people are going to get that [quality of information] from the Internet.”
Whether for good or bad, the information power-shift in the news industry has left print media at the beginning of the end. However, the need for dedicated journalists could never be higher than it is now — even if a new age of online-only journalists develops in the future.
For now, though, print media will probably retain its nostalgic value and the level of journalistic legitimacy that it has earned for surviving, even thriving, for so long.
“There is that feeling that [print media] is a more serious endeavor,” Hallinan said. “I do think that one thing print has is its standards. You need a lot of sources, you need to show your work, and you need to back up the points you are making with knowledgeable people who have credentials. I’m not saying it can’t be done on the Internet, but I don’t see it happening [as much].”
At the same time, change appears inevitable. With print media fading, adaptation to new technologies is the only way for news media to move forward at all.
“Change is sometimes a challenge, but it’s going to happen,” Moore said. “It’s challenging work at a lot of places where you’ve got shrinking staffs and resources, but I’m remaining optimistic about the future of print journalism — and a long tradition of storytelling in our culture.”