Why Newspapers must Change

Extra! Extra! Read all about it: "Newspapers are on the Verge of Extinction." Extra! Extra! "Publishers are Scrambling to Salvage a Dying Product." These headlines could very well become reality if newspaper companies do not formulate a viable plan to stem declining circulation and penetration rates, diminishing advertising dollars and the public's growing disinterest of newspapers. These alarm bells have been sounding off for several years, but the bells ring louder every day as new alternatives to accessing information proliferate.

Newspapers are being hit from all angles. Advertisers are using newspapers less. The cost of newsprint and labor is skyrocketing, and readership among young Americans is at its lowest point with less than half claiming to have read a newspaper the day before. The consequences for publishers have been to reduce the size of the paper and news content while raising the cost to consumers and advertisers. This, in essence, has made newspapers more vulnerable to competition.

"As many in the press have come to realize, this is a moment of truth in American newsrooms. No one knows whether "journalism" as presently done, can survive the commercial pressures of an expanded media universe. At the same time, there is no telling where the floating discontent with political and public life will lead. One thing is clear, however; there can be no safe haven for journalists, no point outside the current mess from which they can observe what happens without themselves contributing--to the deepening problems, or to possible solutions," said Jay Rosen, New York University professor."

Rosen's comment sheds light on why newspapers are in the state they're in. Readership is down because journalists have not done their job in making news relevant to readers. The economic alarm is one of six problems newspapers must address in order to survive in the next millennium, according to Rosen. The others are technological, political, occupational, spiritual and intellectual. These concerns have led journalists, publishers and communication professors to brainstorm ways of better reporting, writing and presenting the news. Many newspapers have undergone or are experimenting with redesigning their product to allure more readers. But Rosen feels the burgeoning of new technologies could spell doom for newspapers, especially for civic journalism.

Civic journalism is a way to reconnect readers to the newspaper and engage them in a dialogue that may lead to problem solving. The basic premise is that the success of democracy and journalism are inextricably linked. There are no set principles or an agreed upon definition, but most proponents would say that this is a step in the right direction.

Understanding the push for civic journalism lies in understanding the media routines of journalists. When I was an undergrad in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida, I was told that good journalists are objective and detach their feelings from the story they are covering. This gives the impression to readers that your story is pure, insuring credibility. But Merritt said this is the very reason for the growing rift between the public and the media. This wall of separation actually lessens journalists' credibility, Merritt said, because citizens equate detachment with a lack of community interest. And if reporters are not interested in the community, why should people value their account of events since journalists act like they don't have a stake in those events.

"To understand this, picture in your mind someone you know, not a journalist, who has credibility with you and others. That person possesses certain attributes. She or he is probably thought of as intellectually honest, fair-minded, thoughtful, aware of events--you can make your own list. Most importantly, however, you believe that he or she cares about what happens; that you share common concerns about how life goes. Traditionally journalists, who strive for that same credibility, contend that they are intellectually honest, fair minded-thoughtful, aware of events--that they possess all of those attributes--but insist that they cannot care what happens, or at least must not be caught caring. The dilemma is that true credibility with others cannot arise from a person, profession, or institution openly professing not to care, not sharing at least some broad common cause with others. People do not value that which they do not trust...," Merritt said.

Civic journalism and how to implement it is just as diverse as the number of newspapers in the country. The concept, then, must be tailor-made to bring about effective change. Effective change may only go so far, Rosen said, as the Internet continues to grow.

According to the Web Police, a web site detailing the latest of computer crime statistics, there are between 105 million and 170 million people worldwide on the Internet. This number grows by an average of 136,000 new users per day. The Internet still seems to be an American phenomenon with Americans comprising 61 percent of the usage. Nearly 80 percent of the content is in English. The Associated Press reported that there are over 320 million web pages on the Internet, and the best search engines can index only 40 percent of the information.

"Direct links that remove the filter are more and more possible. Consumers choice seems to be on the rise. A "one-to-many" communication pattern--typical of newspapers and TV--is being slowly replaced by a "many-to-many" system more familiar to us from the telephone," Rosen said.

Rosen's comments are shared by many in the profession. The journalist's role will change in the future. The question is to what extent. If more people are putting news online, will this totally eliminate the need for a journalist? No, because although the media is not relied on as much as in the past, according to various surveys and polls, it's still seen as an objective news source. Even with more businesses, organizations and individuals providing information on the Internet, the objectivity and credibility of what they produce may be inherently suspect. People regard newspapers as objective information banks, telling both sides of the story. With other information sources, how will consumers know the information is accurate? What if the source has a hidden agenda?

Merritt, the editor of the Wichita Eagle and author of the book, Public Journalism and Public Life: Why Telling the News is Not Enough, states that the online world could leave the present state of journalism in peril. The purpose of civic journalism is to get citizens more involved in the processes that effect their every day lives. This involvement includes citizens interacting more with each other and forming associations and groups to better handle certain issues. Merritt fears cyberspace lessens the quality of those interactions and the chance of people getting involved in their community. Merritt implies that cyberspace is impersonal and too transient to get people involved in their community.

Brett Preecs, an electronic publishing consultant, disagrees. He said civic journalism can be empowered through the Internet's ability to sort, search and retrieve vast amounts of information. Civic journalism's survival will hinge on its ability to survive the news cycle and give people an effective means to search information important to them.

For example, news about smoking's effect on the body may not become a concern to someone until he or she is diagnosed with smoking-related illness. This person could then access the online publication and get a plethora of information stored in a specified database. This ability, coupled with journalists using other interactive channels, strengthens civic journalism and utlimately the public.

Jan Schaffer, the executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, sees cyberspace as an opportunity for journalists to explore. Schaffer said the spread of Internet technology and the inherent interactivity of online publications will create exciting possibilities for future journalists. According to a recent "The Media in Cyberspace" study by a public relations firm Middleberg and Associates, half of all journalists go online everyday for fact and story gathering purposes.

"I think that what's going on is really exciting and very creative. I think civic journalism is working at creating the journalism of the future--in all its forms, traditional, online, in-person."

All of the latest studies about the Internet and its usage point toward extreme growth within the next few years. As a result, reporters will have to adopt a different journalistic style to appeal to a cyberspace audience, which is more transient than newspaper readers and television viewers. With a myriad number of web pages for users to choose to access information, journalists must find a way to stay a step above the rest.

Mass communication professors Shelton A. Gunaratne and Byung S. Lee said the Internet will become more important to the future of journalism as this technology flourishes.

"As society is moving into the electronic age, more people are communicating in cyberspace and using cyberspace to access more information. Journalists, as well as trainee journalists, have no alternative but to fit this mold. They will have to search cyberspace to locate newsworthy data and human sources, just as they do in the physical world."

In conclusion, journalists should embrace this technology and look for ways to use the medium to their advantage. If done right, journalists will inevitably be seen as important information sources well into the next century and beyond.