Dickinsonians navigate an industry on the precipice
by Michelle Simmons
October 1, 2012
Frank James '79 digital news blogger, National Public Readio. Photo by Lisa Helfert.
Alec Johnson '09 vividly remembers standing next to his grandfather and father, as a child, at the Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times press, surrounded by the roar of mammoth paper rolls spinning before him. "Seeing the papers being printed was just phenomenal," he recalls. "It fueled my desire to be in print journalism."
A fourth-generation newspaperman and graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Johnson currently writes for the Waterbury (Conn.) Republican-American. His family has been in the journalism business since his great-grandfather began writing for the Daily Times; today, his uncle and father are editor and co-publisher, respectively.
"These days, I'm hearing more about the price of a ton of paper and ink prices," Johnson says. "Right now the conversations are about what we can do to move journalism and the newspaper product forward."
It's a conversation playing out in corner offices and cubicles, on press floors and loading docks and in journalism schools and on blogs, as the newspaper industry wrestles with intimations of mortality.
"Newspapers are dying because the whole business model went to hell," says Doug Harper '83, copy editor for Lancaster Newspapers, which publishes The Intelligencer Journal / Lancaster New Era and The Sunday News. "The classifieds have gone to Craigslist, the downtown department stores are dead and there are no 9-year-olds on bikes who deliver the paper anymore."
Beside his desk sits a brass pneumatic-tube contraption, a relic from an era when newsrooms were full of editors and reporters who cracked wise à la Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Harper, a history major while at Dickinson, sees the newspaper as one of many industrial-age marvels—like that vacuum tube—whose time has come and gone.
"The newspaper was a great model for moving large amounts of accurate information into people's hands relatively quickly," he says. "It doesn't work anymore, but it still exists."
Harper has survived several rounds of layoffs at the paper, where fellow Dickinsonians Jen Kopf '87 and Jack Brubaker '66 also have spent the bulk of their careers. All three say they fell into the profession: Harper had considered teaching, and Kopf was an English and political-science double major who had planned to go into the foreign service. Brubaker, an English major, thought of becoming a playwright. Instead he has become an award-winning investigative journalist, columnist and author of six history books about the Lancaster County region.
"We've had layoffs for years now, as all newspapers have," says Brubaker. "I'm not worried personally—I've had a long career. But I hate to see it happen, because every time you downsize the paper, the quality suffers."
Until about 10 years ago, the papers' combined circulation was still growing; today, it is down 20 percent from its peak of nearly 200,000, says Kopf, and another upcoming round of layoffs has everyone on edge. Kopf, who is currently the co-editor of the lifestyle section, is down to just one staff reporter.
"We're churning through a lot of ideas because no one in this industry knows what's next," she says. "You might know how to put together a great newspaper, but how do you support it? The online versions allow people to just pick and choose."
Yet demand for online content continues to grow. "We're also on Pinterest and Twitter," Kopf says. "Every day people are following us, who don't necessarily have any local connection to us. So the bottom-line question becomes, how can we best serve those 'followers' while still creating locally focused content—and, how can that peripheral readership help the newspaper generate revenue? In the end, having a lot of 'followers' or a great online presence won't mean much if they're not creating some kind of value that helps carry the whole enterprise."
Striking that right balance between print and digital is just one of many industry conundrums that Chuck Strum '70 faces these days. "We've had to adapt to the modern world," says Strum, a deputy national editor at The New York Times. "We're trying very hard to integrate the news organizations—the one we were and the one we've become online."
Industry insiders are closely watching the Times' early and aggressive adoption of the Web and multimedia storytelling strategies, along with its business model. In June, the paper launched a Chinese-language online edition, which includes translated articles and columns from the English-language paper, as well as original reporting from Chinese journalists. The aim is to reach out to China's large and growing middle class—and the high-end advertisers hoping to penetrate a market eager for luxury brands.
"The industry wishes it had crystal-ball clarity, but it doesn't," says Strum. "It may be that we can make money on the Web and the Web alone. There may still be a print paper for those who want it. All forms are being discussed. The trick is to find the money to do it—it costs a lot of money to run a news organization."
"With the Internet, you have this fascinating thing where everyone is a publisher," says Frank James '79. An English major, Frank began as a proofreader with the Wall Street Journal and went on to a 30-plus-year career reporting for the Journal and the Chicago Tribune. In 2009, he left the foundering Tribune to launch a blog, The Two-Way, at National Public Radio (NPR).
"NPR, CNN, CBS News and cable / broadcast businesses are all publishers," he continues. "Right now, it's an adventure. We don't know where this is going. NPR, like every other news organization, is trying to figure out how to put the best journalism in front of people, and to do it every day."
James traces the decline of the industry not to the Internet, but much further back to the 1960s and '70s. "Even then, we could see that circulation had stagnated," he recalls. "We knew there was going to be a day of reckoning, but we didn't anticipate the end would be so harsh."
Yet, "there will always be newspapers—we'll always have Paris," he says. "You'll have The New York Times and The Washington Post in a print format, and some small-town newspapers will do OK. You're going to see more newspapers fold, but there will always be a niche for print."
One of those thriving niches is hyperlocal publication The Boston Courant, where Jennifer Maiola '96 is managing editor. "What I'm hearing locally and across the country is that newspapers are trying to shift online," says Maiola. "At the same time, we haven't seen an online model that's working."
The Courant serves some of the most affluent sections of Boston. It has yet to go online—the publisher has little interest in diluting the impact that print can offer to readers and advertisers. "We're the city's largest weekly community newspaper covering the Back Bay and other downtown neighborhoods," Maiola explains from her Boston office. "When I put on my business hat, I have to ask, 'How is [an online version] going to help my advertisers?' "
For new and aspiring journalists like Johnson and Eddie Small '10, there's no longer much distinction between the two. "I just want to write—I don't care if I'm doing it for a print or online publication," says Small, who this summer completed his M.S. in journalism from Columbia and worked with Johnson at the Waterbury Republican-American. Small is currently on assignment in Australia for The Atlantic.
Johnson and Small are plenty wired, savvy about social media and are part of a generation with allegedly short attention spans. Yet both extol the virtues of long, investigative pieces and believe there is a market for them. Johnson has been working on a series on drunk driving, for which the paper received a New England Associated Press News Executives Association award.
"If you want to be a good journalist, you should write for a traditional paper," Johnson says. "They still have the editing staff that can nurture you, help you realize what talents you may have. I don't think you'd get that if you just worked for [the Web site] Patch. You can learn how to report breaking news and what's going on, but you don't go to the next level and get to the why. The why is what people really want to know."
Wanting to know why comes naturally to someone steeped in the liberal arts and may be the perfect preparation for an industry on the cusp of what—no one knows. "There is such a flux in journalism now that you have to be prepared to do anything," says Maiola. "The field is changing by the second. You have to be quick, have broad interests, and you have to dive in." Maiola points to the critical-thinking skills she obtained as an undergraduate and the confidence she developed as a writer. "Dickinson makes you have an active mind. I was eating up everything—in my women's-studies class, even in geology. That feeds a mind suited to journalism."
Equally important may be the social contract undergirding the industry—and on the minds of its practitioners. As with the liberal arts, a thriving, free press is fundamental to a functioning democracy—which requires an educated, informed citizenry. From prosaic reports of school-board meetings to in-depth coverage of revolutions unfolding halfway around the globe, newspapers in their present form expose the reader to stories, people and ideas that he or she may not be interested in initially—or even knew existed. Whether neatly folded and tucked under the arm or spread across the dining-room table, a newspaper's physicality keeps us moored to a tangible world, full of real people, actions and consequences.
"People are glomming onto social media," says Maiola. "Does it mean the death of traditional journalism? I don't think so. Print still does something that you don't get online. I still want my Sunday-morning coffee and to feel the newspaper on my fingertips."