THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED ON TOM MARTIN’S LEXINGTON COLUMN IN KYFORWARD.COM. MANY THANKS TO TOM MARTIN FOR ALLOWING THE REPRINT OF THIS PIECE.
By Kristy Horine Robinson, Correspondent
Journalists, publishers, editors, and lovers of the print media recently converged on the campus of Scott County’s Cardome Center for a one-day conference to explore these issues.
Titled Words in a Changing World: From Bradford to Bloggers,the conference was facilitated by Debra Hoskins and hosted by Anne and Suzanne Cassidy of the Cardome Center for the Written Word and the home of the newly opened Museum of the Written Word.
Two panel discussions were moderated by Lexington Herald-Leader columnist Tom Eblen, and consisted of leaders in Kentucky’s print media industry representing various publications such as state magazines, journalism schools, and newspapers.
“On August 11, 1787, the first newspaper to be published west of Pittsburgh, hit the streets of Lexington, Kentucky. It was a modest thing, printed on a one-page fold about the size of letter sheets. The Kentucky Gazette carried a few news items from elsewhere, an advertisement and an apology from its publisher. The 38-year-old publisher had little or no training as a printer, reporter, writer, or editor but he did understand deadlines … The Kentucky Gazette had a rough start 225 years ago, but it began a long and illustrious newspaper tradition in Kentucky,” said Eblen, who presented a concise history of John Bradford, Kentucky’s first newspaper founder.
Despite the fact that Kentucky’s journalism lineage has been well-documented over the years, no one journalist is able to say exactly where news media is headed, especially in light of economic concerns, advances in technology, and a general erosion of trust among the reading public.
It is no secret that the U.S. and global economies suffered a drastic hit beginning in 2008 with the bursting of a house bubble that had seemed all but invincible. And it is also no secret that media outlets have suffered exponentially due to a near-collapse of businesses who pulled advertising dollars in order to shore up bottom lines. As newsfolk know, it is advertising revenue, not subscription rates, that is the lifeblood of newspapers.
The More Things Change, The Less Change in Our Pockets
“This is a real weird time, in that we have all this wonderful new technology that does so much to enable journalists to do more than they’ve ever been able to do before. We have, thanks to the internet, far more readers than we’ve ever had before,” Eblen said. “But we don’t always have the economic model to support that because of the changes in the advertising business and marketing in general.”
To a newspaper, magazine, or other print publication, there are certain costs common to any business: property, salaries, taxes, and all the usual business bills. Add to that, the costs of printing, maintaining equipment, delivery, insurance, and subscriptions to myriad research resources. Add to that the cost of maintaining websites, IT positions, and any hand-held devices that a news staffer might need and expenses soar. With advertising revenue in decline as marketing budgets are increasingly redirected in pursuit of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM), print media struggles.
John Nelson, Editor of the Danville Advocate-Messenger, said his staff approached the digital age the same way they approached ‘shoppers’ (supplemental advertising publications) ten years ago. He explained that when the concept of the shopper came out, newspapers jumped on the chance to use their skills and resources to provide what the community needed.
“We did the same thing with our websites,” Nelson said. “We thought that if we don’t do it, someone else will and we are paying for it, probably because it is not behind a pay wall.”
Just in the last few weeks, global media outlets have considered the issue of a pay wall – charging customers for online content that was previously free. Some news agencies have always maintained a pay wall and do not need to back pedal on free access, but many others are now being forced by financial strains to reconsider free content. Again, there are no easy answers for decisions that affect the bottom line of the newspaper industry.
But not all print media is facing difficult economic adversity for giving away the news they produce at no charge. Laura Cullen-Glasscock, Publisher and Editor of the modern-day version of The Kentucky Gazette, a bi-monthly, niche publication that specializes in covering state government issues, says that she has not lost revenue on the web because she hasn’t completely arrived on the web.
“The Gazette has a weak website. We do not blog. I have, in my life, sent out one tweet, and we do not have mobile capabilities. We have a different business model,” Cullen-Glasscock said. “I think that one aspect is that, because we’ve been behind everyone else, we are learning from everyone else’s mistakes.”
Cullen-Glasscock said that if she does offer her content on the internet, it will be behind that pay wall.
Still, the general consensus is that no matter the cost, and no matter the delivery method the general public of a thriving democracy, rich or poor, must have free access to reliable information provided by trustworthy, professional journalists.
You Are Now Entering The Digital Age
When the Boston Marathon suspects fled from police, a serious man-hunt ensued. One of the suspects was shot and killed. The other, well, no one really knew. How does an entire city as large as Boston, Massachusetts, go on lockdown during a manhunt and ensure the safety of its citizens? It employs social media, by way of members of The Boston Globe news staff.
“There were a million people trapped in their homes. That was their lifeline. That was their information. It was impressive,” said Peter Baniak, editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader.
And Kentucky has its own stories of being the lifeline in times of crisis.
The Licking Valley Courier has a slogan: “Speaking of and for Morgan, the Bluegrass County of the Mountains.” Even when a devastating tornado roared through West Liberty in March of 2012, wiping out the newspaper office, the spirit of the paper continued to support that slogan. Liz Hansen, Professor and Chair of EKU’s Department of Communications and a panelist for the first session of the day, outlined how important the role of the newspaper was to the heart of the community, even when the publication was forced to go all-digital in order to fulfill its role of public service. Immediately, Hansen said, the newspaper staff began a Facebook page just to keep citizens informed. Now the Courier successfully disseminates news in both its print edition and via social media.
While there are such positive stories of ways the print media is making use of digital technology, there also are concerns.
“I guess right now, I worry about pretty much everything. It is a time of enormous change,” Baniak said. “It is a time of enormous excitement. But I worry about whether we are doing enough to adapt and innovate. Audience is not the issue. We have a bigger audience than we ever have. We have more ways to tell stories than we ever had. But are we adapting fast enough?”
In this new age of immediacy, news outlets are struggling with ways to engage
the next generation, which has embraced an on-demand societal norm enabled by the explosion in access to “smart” devices.
“Whatever information it is they want, the key thing is that they expect it to be available to them now. And we may all howl at the moon about that. We may not like that. But that’s just the way it is,” Baniak said.
Nelson said that the Danville Advocate-Messenger is experimenting with KY Extra, an app which uses visual recognition for a picture, and then links to the story that goes with that picture.
Baniak said that he has seen an increase in tablet use, because tablets are becoming a replacement for sitting down in the morning or evening with the newspaper.
And David Thompson, Executive Director of the Kentucky Press Association, said that newspapers are even doing live streaming of videos and may, one day, resemble broadcast journalism shows with online format.
Eblen said that these social media and technology tools will help the print industry adapt to that on-demand mentality.
“That’s one of the things I find exciting. There is demand for content that people care about. A lot of these formats give us an opportunity to deliver that and we’ve never had that before,” Eblen said.
Still, veteran and entry-level journalists alike worry about the toll that immediacy journalism will have on the general public. No matter the format, the details and context of the story still must be accurate.
Gaining Trust – One Story at a Time
“Any time you are in a quest to get out information quickly, you run the risk of getting out incorrect or confusing information. You could argue that is one of the prices we pay for free press and it is up to the consumer to weed out or determine where they can get reliable information,” Nelson said. “People want the news now and that opens the door to error. People in a free society will always demand good journalism eventually and we will figure out how to get it to them.”
Richard Wilson, a retired Louisville Courier-Journal reporter and bureau chief, said that he represents two types of people. One is the senior citizen who will not give up his newspaper. And second is the technophobe who has trouble navigating the new technological floodwaters. But Wilson said the delivery of the news is not foremost in his line of concern.
“It’s very interesting that all my colleagues have been speaking about delivery of the news. I don’t worry about that. That’s going to take care of itself one way or another. I worry more about the way the news is collected. And my major concern right now is that publishers are not providing the resources necessary to put out a first class news product at the very time the public needs more, not less,” Wilson said.
Wilson said that reporters these days are ‘running with their tongues hanging out,’ being asked to do more with less, deliver the content now, and to do it with the support of skeleton staffs. Despite his worries, he said there is hope. Wilson gave the New Orleans Times Picayune as an example. The Times Picayune cut its newspaper production from a daily to a three-day a week publication. With a rival newspaper edging into the void coupled with an outcry from the public, the Times Picayune has made the decision to return to daily publication. “There are reasons for some optimism,” Wilson said.
Those reasons can be found in a small mountain community still recovering a year later from a tornado. The people of West Liberty have been encouraged by the tenacity of a local newspaper that was willing and able to adapt.
And there was the glimmer of positive thinking about the future of their profession and industry among the seasoned newshounds gathered in straight-backed white chairs on the third floor of the Cardome Center. They offered hope to a Commonwealth that is hungry for news, hungry for the stories that will tell them who they are and where they are headed.
Lauren Cullen-Glasscock said, “Sometimes we forget about the public service aspect. We can be in places that regular citizens can’t be. Trained journalists subscribe to a code of ethics. [We can say], I was there for you.”