April 5, 2017

Two recent items have me scratching my head about the future of newspapers.

On March 23, I sat in the back row of a conference room at The Poynter Institute to watch an interview with veteran news reporter and anchor Campbell Brown. She has been hired by Facebook to help the company develop standards and practices at the places where social media bump into journalism.

In responses to questions from Poynter’s Kelly McBride, Brown spoke with energy and some wonder at the ways in which the news media landscape continues to change. I don’t have a transcript, but at one point she blurted something like, “I mean, who reads a newspaper anymore?”

Here’s what happens when a rhetorical question is treated like a literal question by the audience: Brown seemed surprised when a significant percentage of the 159 people in the room raised their hands. She failed to calculate that she had asked her question in St. Petersburg, Florida, the town once parodied as “the city of the newly wed and nearly dead,” and “the world’s largest open-air mausoleum.”

That’s the way St. Pete looked 40 years ago when the Clarks rode into town. And while the demographics still skew older than many municipalities — about 30 percent of the population is 55 years or older — the city has developed a much more youthful flair. Just count the funky art murals and microbreweries.

And now there is this: the news in The Tampa Bay Times (owned by Poynter) that “St. Petersburg ranks No. 2 for newspaper readers.” Times book editor Colette Bancroft reports that “This marks the first year St. Petersburg has been included in the annual America’s Most Literate Cities survey, which is based on six criteria. In one of those — newspaper circulation — St. Petersburg…ranks No. 2 in the nation.”

Other criteria include support for bookstores, libraries, magazines and journals published, and online book sales. “The only city with more newspaper readers per capita is news-hungry Washington, D.C., which also ranks No. 1 overall in the literacy survey.”

So why am I scratching my head? I thought newspapers were dying.

As I scratched my head, I revisited a column I wrote for Poynter’s website almost exactly 10 years ago. In it, I argued that — at a time when newspapers were receding — it was a citizen’s duty to buy and read the daily news.

I wrote this in October of 2007, the year before the Great Recession, and at the beginning of a decade of tumultuous digital innovation, leading to the supremacy of mobile technologies and social networks, and the polluting practices of fake news and trolling.

Here’s what I wrote back then:

There is one overriding question about the future of journalism that no one can yet answer: How will we pay for it? Who will pay for good reporters and editors? Who will pay to station them in statehouses, or send them to cover wars and disasters? Who will finance important investigations in support of the public’s health and safety?

I was slammed by critics as living in the world of arteriosclerotic Luddites. Paper, said my detractors, had gone from being an artery to becoming a blood clot in the circulation of news.

The sooner newspapers disappeared, went the argument, the sooner we could stop killing trees, the sooner that we could stop burning fossil fuels via delivery trucks, the sooner that the internet would come into its own, the sooner that online advertising would replace all those tired tire ads back in the sports section.

Let’s return for a second to that conference room in which Campbell Brown asked her question. Remember, I sat in the back row. In the row in front of me sat a line of young women who had been attending a Poynter seminar on leadership in the digital age. I did not see a single hand raised in response to the question “who reads the newspaper anymore?” If a hand had been raised, there was a good chance that it would have been holding a cellphone.

So I get it. Newspapers — including the one in St. Pete — are in decline, a slide that began decades ago. If I die at the age of 95, as did my mom, will my obit appear in a paper version of the local rag? Who knows?

One thing remains clear:

An industry that is dying is still alive. It is not dead — yet. While alive, it may continue to perform vital services to a community — services such as news and information, keeping an eye on city hall, on sewage in the bay, on the failures of local schools. It may continue to be the best we’ve got.

We Baby Boomers have smartphones too. But our connection to newspapers is old and deep. We remain a political and economic force that will continue to shape the news and how it is delivered. The newspapers we continue to support will provide much of the information that is aggregated, curated, and distributed for free all over the world.

The narrative that online advertising will grow to replace the loss of print advertising is looking more and more like a fairy tale. Newspapers are not doing more with less. They are doing less with less. But they are still doing something, and what they are doing remains vital to the communities they serve.

So while I no longer profess a duty to buy and read the newspaper, I embrace a civic responsibility to support the news. We pay for telephones, water, electricity, garbage pickup, recycling and other utilities. Who will pay for the news? The answer is “me.”

How about you?

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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