Do Some Newspapers Want to Die?

Do some newspapers have a death wish?  Allegra Jordan, managing director of the consulting firm, Innovation Abbey, asks that provocative question based on her recent experience advising media and technology companies, as well as nonprofit groups that are helping communities around the world rebuild and renew themselves.

Confronted with either a natural disaster or a manmade one, such as war, some communities never seem to recover, she observes, while others come back stronger than before. What determines the fate of a community?   “Healthy communities have compelling visions of who they are and why they exist,” she says. “They also act in ways that help them realize their desired end states.”

In other words, people in the communities that bounce back stop doing the things that just don’t work anymore.  They adapt to the changed environment and circumstances and adopt new behaviors so they can survive and eventually thrive.  I’ve thought a lot about Jordan’s comparison between communities and newspapers as I’ve researched Saving Community Journalism: The Path to Profitability

The fate of a newspaper and the community it serves are inextricably linked.  Strong papers “remind a community everyday of its collective identity, the stake we have in one another,” says Harvard University professor Ron Heifetz.  Strong newspapers can lift up a struggling community, and point the way to renewal. “The economy, health, education – we know there are a lot of quality-of-life issues here. . .” says Les High, editor of the twice-weekly Whiteville News Reporter in rural Columbus County, one of North Carolina’s poorest.  “And if we don’t cover them, no one else will.”

Like most of the 12 innovative newspapers profiled in Saving Community Journalism, the News Reporter has that “compelling vision of who they are and why they exist.”  So despite significant financial challenges, the staff of the News Reporter is reinventing itself, so that it can move from the print-only world of yesterday toward a digital future, and continue to serve the citizens of Columbus County.

However, in adjacent counties that are confronting many of the same quality-of-life issues as Columbus, other newspapers seem to have a subconscious death wish for both themselves and their communities.   In general, I found there are two types of publishers stuck in the past:   the longtime owner, who refuses to acknowledge that the media habits of younger residents in the community are very different from his own, and the new owner, who assumes that the previous owners were doing everything wrong.   Typically, these “new” owners don’t know the business of newspapering – only the bottom line. So, they discount the trend lines and double down on print, which, at the moment, is more profitable than digital, but won’t be for long.  Nor do these publishers understand the intertwined relationship between a good newspaper and a strong community. Instead of identifying and discussing important quality-of-life issues, these papers either ignore the problems or simply report the basic facts, without giving context or meaning to any of the stories. 

Communities – and newspapers – that survive a disaster, or unexpected assault on their legacies, have “leaders who model hope,” says Jordan.  Two of the most inspiring newspaper leaders today are Catherine Nelson, general manager of the Rutland Herald in Vermont and Bruce Kyse, publisher of Santa Rosa Press Democrat from 2005 to 2013. Both have dealt with drastically changed circumstances in recent years, as revenues and profits have declined precipitously.  But instead of digging in or giving up, both have crafted compelling visions to transform and renew their papers.  

“You’ve got to pick a point out there in five years and try to envision what the world will be like – how readers will be consuming news – and realize that you’ve got to get there from here, all the while keeping the paper afloat and retaining your readers and advertisers,” says Kyse.  “You need to create a vision and work toward it and, in the end, you make a leap of faith.”

Nelson agrees.  “Don’t be afraid of the future, just keep moving forward,” she says.  “Embrace your roots.  Our roots are all about public trust and finding a way.  There is going to be a way.  It’s just going to be different.  So be open-minded.  This is such a creative time.  Just have the faith that you’re going to find the new way.”

Words to live by – for both communities and newspapers.

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