Newspapers have been in the news lately both for the peril in which they find themselves and for their survival.
Closest to home, The Burlington Free Press was the focus of a New York Times story examining the tribulations of Vermont’s largest daily as it navigates the waters of change in the digital age. The Free Press, like The Times Argus, has seen a precipitous decline in circulation and advertising in recent years from all the familiar causes.
Those causes include the presence of online news sources available for free, as well as online advertising vehicles, such as Craigslist. Newspapers have taken a major hit because classified advertising has moved online.
The Free Press, like The Times Argus, has realized it cannot give away its product for free and survive. That’s why many newspapers have erected pay walls requiring readers to pay to view most online content. This experiment has worked for The Times Argus in stabilizing readership and revenue, and it ought to help the Free Press.
The Free Press has complicated its prospects by undertaking a radical redesign of its paper, changing it into a tabloid format that has been much derided by readers. It is reasonable to question whether a garish tabloid style is suitable for Vermont. It appears that some readers have found it is not. The Free Press retains a core of veteran, professional reporters whose work can still be found in its pages, and one hopes that the paper’s readers have the patience to look for them.
Also in the news has been the history of The New York Times in the past half century, brought into focus by the death of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, known as Punch, who was the longtime publisher. Sulzberger guided the paper through a period of tumultuous change when The New York Times fought the good fight for all Americans in defense of the First Amendment and the power and independence of the press.
It is noteworthy that Sulzberger was able to maintain a standard of excellence and a dedication of resources toward journalism, both broad and deep, in part because of the family ownership of the paper. The New York Times was not a slave to the demands of shareholders and the imperatives of Wall Street; it adhered to values greater than the value of a dollar. The free and open reporting of the news, the free exchange of ideas, the wide-ranging exploration of our world — these are the products of curious minds harnessed to a cause higher than making a buck. Certainly, those who work in journalism know it is not about the bucks.
But bucks play a role, which is why the story from New Orleans is a sad one. There the New Orleans Times-Picayune, a daily paper for 175 years, has cut production to three days a week. It is the demise of a cherished institution, and tradition-minded New Orleanians have mourned the loss of their newspaper. For Newhouse Media, it was about the money, though the Baton Rouge Advocate has swept into town with a daily New Orleans edition. There is money to be made in news because news is something people want.
The Times-Picayune was an essential vehicle of information during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Vermont’s newspapers learned about their own crucial role in the lives of Vermonters in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene.
But it’s not just in times of disaster that newspapers matter. Through all the changes, technological and demographic, people still want to know what is going on in their communities and the world. A shakeout may be under way in the media world, and newspapers may not bring in the big profit margins that they did at one time. But newspapers grounded in their communities are surviving to provide the news in new ways to readers who want to be connected to their world.
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