There has been much buzz recently about whether The Plain Dealer
is going to be published three days a week instead of seven, the same as Newhouse Newspapers have done with the Times-Picayune newspaper they own in New Orleans. If this happens, or worse, if The Plain Dealer
closes, it will be a much bigger blow to Cleveland than it will be to its owners.
Newspaper readers don’t normally think about what a newspaper means to a community — they enjoy their favorite articles and columnists and move on — but it has always been my belief that newspapers shape the communities they serve.
Since most of my colleagues don’t agree with my assessment of newspapers, I would like to share with you my opinion of how the newspaper business became broken, how it can be fixed, and why it is important for Cleveland to have both a good newspaper and a successful one. You can make up your own mind.
To begin, the reason newspapers are broken is the same reason cows who no longer give milk are put out to pasture: Newspapers stopped producing what their customers were buying — in this case, good reporting. Faced with a recession and a bad Internet strategy, newspaper owners panicked and cut the most obvious expense in their budgets: experienced reporters. Almost overnight, readers could see the difference. They could no longer find news and insight in their newspaper that they couldn’t find other places.
If I had to guess, I would say there are fewer reporters working at newspapers today than at any time in history. In a society drowning in a sea of opinion, we have always counted on reporters to get the facts and get the story. Communities are built on opinion and fact, yet opinion without fact is worthless. Who knows whether or not newspaper owners, faced with financial survival, gave any thought to what their customers were actually purchasing? The customers did, however. They did what customers do when a product no longer satisfies their needs: They bought a different one.
As to the question of whether newspapers can be saved, we know Warren Buffett’s answer. Recently, he paid $500 million for 63 newspapers. In his annual report to stockholders, he said he believed newspapers had lost their way and the path back was to provide content relevant to the lives of the people living in the communities his newspapers served. In my opinion, he is right on the money, so to speak.
Over the last five years, I have been surprised to see The Plain Dealer
give less coverage to Cleveland and Northeast Ohio and more coverage to national and international news. While they do a good job of sports reporting, there is less coverage of business, politics and a number of other local topics. Actually, with Americans feeling more and more powerless in effecting change in either state or federal government issues, it would seem there is more need than ever to provide them news and information about the one place they feel they can still make a difference.
Without question, the successful newspaper of the future will be deeply devoted to the community it serves and be available whether a customer wants to enjoy it in physical form, sitting behind a computer or on an iPhone. The strategy will be a mix of words, video and sound that all play into a focused brand identity that is easily understood and valued by both reader and advertisers alike. You could argue The Plain Dealer
is already doing this with Cleveland.com, but can someone explain to me Cleveland.com’s brand?
The Internet has opened new revenue sources for all media, including newspapers, and they are the ones with the most to gain (and lose) from the shift in how we consume information. The Plain Dealer
’s decision in recent years to focus on less local news is puzzling at best.
The Plain Dealer
has always had the largest and best news organization in town. A long-running joke in the media is that if The Plain Dealer
hadn’t published that day, there would be no news, because TV and radio stations get their news from reading the morning paper. With a better understanding of the need for solid reporting on the issues and opportunities that mean the most to Clevelanders, and armed with a new revenue model, there is no reason The Plain Dealer
cannot become what it once was.
When I hear people say newspapers are dead, I know they don’t know what they are talking about. Community-focused websites by themselves will never be able to generate enough revenue to pay for large staffs of talented reporters. It will take a credible news organization distributing information people deeply care about in various ways to make the financial equation work. The newspapers of the future will be part of a multimedia news organization serving local communities.
There is a reason journalism is called The Fourth Estate. It is the leg of the table that keeps the other three legs of government standing. Although it has never gotten the credit it deserves, journalism has helped build America’s cities and communities. Without the hard work of journalists going about their business, providing the facts we need to make decisions that improve our communities and our lives, where would we be?
Walter Lippman (1889-1974), America’s most influential political journalist, would respond when complimented about something he had written: “I am just truth’s pilgrim at the plough.”
It is hard for me to imagine building a great community without having journalists at the plough.