Newspapers need to do their job

I’ve been asked on numerous occasions recently how things are going at The New Era.

I appreciate the concern and I’m pretty sure I know why the question is asked so often.

Hardly a day goes by any more when we don’t hear of some major newspaper teetering on the brink of financial disaster.

We get an industry journal here called the American Journalism Review, published by the University of Maryland School of Journalism. The most recent issue features these articles:

“Cities Without Newspapers €“ As the economic noose tightens, the notion of big cities without local dailies seems a real possibility. What would be the impact on civic life? And what might emerge to fill the gap?”

“The Twitter Explosion €¦ Just how effective is (Twitter) as a journalism tool?”

“A Porous Wall €“ As news organizations, in their struggle to survive, blur the line between editorial and advertising, does credibility take a hit?” and

“Hunkering Down €“ Despite the massive economic problems plaguing the newspaper business, some journalists refuse to scramble for the lifeboats.”

It’s not just the trade talk. Congress has held hearings on the issue of dying newspapers.

This is not an era of optimism for the scribes.

But I am optimistic.

In answer to the concerned questioners mentioned above, I generally assure people that our weekly newspaper is still on top of the water, from a business standpoint. Yes, times are tough and you’ve been seeing the results of the recession in the fact that The New Era is often a little thinner than it was last year at this time because the advertising, which accounts for the majority of newspaper revenue, is down.

Less pages presents a problem, typified by today’s edition in which we’re running elementary track photos from three weeks ago and baseball photos that were supposed to be in last week’s paper €“ except we didn’t have enough pages. That’s a rather visible consequence of the recession to you, the reader.

Reduced ad revenues are one challenge for journalism. Another is the challenge from other media, especially new media.

There’s a lot of talk in journalism about how to adapt to the times. When kids (and adults) are running around with cellphones, texting each other in three-letter abbreviations, engaging in Twitter on their computers when they’re not informing us on their Myspace or Facebook pages of some personal high moment such as that they are now brushing their teeth, it would seem that there isn’t much room left for the old-fashioned newspaper page.

Fact is, though, journalism is needed now as much as ever. I know that sounds self-serving, coming from a longtime journalist, but I would say it even if I were selling lumber, which is what I did before I got into this business.

I personally believe that it will be a while, if ever, before the paper version of the newspaper becomes obsolete. I try not to get too sympathetic about paper, though, just as I wasn’t too sorry when computers replaced typewriters.

But what’s important is what quality journalism provides to society, regardless of how the information is delivered.

We’ve all heard the phrase: Knowledge is power. What a good newspaper does is provide readers with knowledge about their community, which gives people the ability to function effectively in a democratic republic such as ours where the citizens still have some say in what goes on.

Obviously, we at The New Era can’t cover every aspect of life in Sweet Home, at least not all the time, but we can keep readers up to date on a lot of the important things happening in City Hall and the School District, as well as just matters of general interest such as community events, sports and human-interest stories.

I have heard many times, even from other journalists, how blogging will replace traditional journalism, how the Internet will eventually eliminate the need for newspapers and other forms of serious reporting.

I don’t believe it €“ not if people really want to know facts from as credible a source as possible.

Yes, the media are often not as reliable as we’d like. Yes, some newspapers and/or their reporters and editors are overtly biased in the way they cover news. Yes, reporters are human and subject to many of the same weaknesses that people in every other calling suffer from and we read about their falls from grace.

Yes, you can learn things that are true on the Internet €“ maybe even things you’d never read in a newspaper or hear on news channels.

But how much can you trust what you’re reading on some blog or in a chat room?

I saw an article the other day in Parade Magazine stating that companies pay about $1.6 billion a year on “word-of-mouth” advertising, “promoting their goods to bloggers and to people who use social-media Web sites like Facebook.”

That means when you read those on-line reviews about a product you’re interested in, chances are that some of them are submitted by people being paid to push that particular product.

When you pull up a Web site on-line, how do you know who’s really putting it together? When you get a text, or read on someone’s Facebook that something’s happened, how do you know that there’s any commitment to accuracy in giving you that account?

As long as people in America are interested in governing their own destiny, which means electing leaders who reflect their views, there will be a need for information from sources that have a commitment to be fair, balanced, informative, independent €“ and interesting.

(I add that last word because there are a lot of things people can focus their attention on in today’s world and just because the news is important doesn’t mean readers will seek it out. So we have to make it as interesting as possible.)

But getting back to my point, if you know someone will get fired if they’re too loose with the facts, doesn’t that give them a little more credibility than if you were to read a statement by someone with no motivation to be accurate or responsible, who thinks it’s fun to start rumors?

That’s why I believe journalism will survive and even thrive if journalists do their job €“ and the people running the business side of newspapers, even large newspapers, make wise decisions.

Our challenge is to serve you, the readers. I believe you, the readers, are served when we provide you with information about the world around us that other sources do not.

That’s our mission and as long as we focus on that, I think we’ll all be OK.