Much has been said over the last several years about the death of journalism. Even enduring optimists will concede that if print journalism is not in its dying days it is certainly in the midst of a reinvention. As a 19-year-old aspiring journalist, I interned at The (Springfield, Mass.) Republican last summer. As the son of longtime newspaper reporters and book authors, I had an opportunity to ponder the fate of print journalism from inside the newsroom. I left with mixed emotions.
Let me begin with a proposition: The market for clear and sharp writing about timely subjects will never disappear. However, its form at the point of delivery either is changing or has already changed, and this trend line seems irreversible. Those bemoaning the demise of print journalism are likely too late; newspapers, as we now know them, will not remain the way they are today for long.
From my view inside The Republican’s newsroom—and reading I’ve done as a journalism student—it seems that editorial leaders at most U.S. daily papers are trailing the pace of technological change. Were they on top of the change curve, they would recognize that the most efficient means of delivering news is no longer on paper. Journalists who have worked for decades in print might lament the fading relevance of newspapers, but to wax nostalgic has never fueled innovation. Nor is it a productive strategy for saving a threatened business model.
Being in The Republican newsroom revealed several critical issues. At least for the foreseeable future, local news doesn’t seem in jeopardy. Most people who live in small communities are likely to be much more interested in finding out what affects their children and neighbors rather than what is happening halfway around the globe or even in Washington, D.C. Like conversations over the back fence, local news—delivered in newspapers even in medium-sized cities—will probably do fine.
Of course, this creates another dilemma for newspapers like The Republican that serve as the paper of record for their region. Publishing standard wire service coverage of national and international news will no long satisfy readers looking for more complete information. Readers who crave the depth provided by on-the-ground correspondents with news organizations like The New York Times are likely to head directly there on the Web. The question is whether the strength of their hometown paper’s local coverage will retain them as loyal readers—in print or on the Web.
In The Republican’s newsroom I experienced something of a disconnect between the old vanguard of journalists who filled the paper’s top posts and younger staffers who were frustrated by the few opportunities they had for using multimedia. Nor did many understand—and they certainly didn’t appreciate—the older employees’ decision-making in organizing the news.
Editors there confronted the same predicaments every paper is facing: less space in the print edition, dwindling ad revenues, a shriveling staff, diminishing newsroom resources, faulty (and outdated) technology, and an aging readership in a city with a shrinking population. How they responded to these familiar trends was neither innovative nor constructive. Editors asked reporters to constrict their coverage; they requested tighter writing, and then shaved copy even more. When they could have utilized the arsenal of multimedia tools to enhance stories’ relevance and accessibility, they failed to do so.
One story I did typified this reticence. When Christopher Kennedy Lawford, son of “Rat Pack” actor Peter Lawford and Patricia Kennedy, was in the region to give a talk, I was sent to interview him for a story about drug addiction. He’d written a book about his struggles with drug abuse. Given 10 inches of space, I was asked to describe his family’s history, write about his experiences in the throes of heroin addiction, tell his story of recovery and rehabilitation, and convey his book’s message. If, instead, we’d pulled together a package for the Web in which we podcast his lecture (or provided a video of it) and I interviewed audience members for their reactions to his talk, we could have augmented what appeared in the newspaper. In my print story, I could have focused on a particular aspect of his talk. Instead, my editor demanded that my lede be shaved to 15 words; it went downhill from there.
This is not to say that The Republican isn’t doing some multimedia reporting. It is, and with some measure of quality. But how this happens creates yet another rift in the staff—this one between its online staff and those assigned to the print edition. It will be increasingly necessary to build bridges between the more technologically savvy employees on newspaper Web sites, most of whom are younger, and the senior members of the print edition. Editors at the newspaper need to do a better job of making decisions about print coverage that consider what parts of the story can better be told on the Web and then directing readers to the multimedia stories online.
Rather than fearing digital storytelling, top newsroom managers should be encouraging their staff to tap into its potential. My peers go to the Web to watch video stories and photo slideshows and I think people older than I am enjoy them, too. Sales of Amazon’s Kindle and the upsurge in the e-reader market, not to mention the mobile possibilities, should be pushing newsrooms to make these changes. Multimedia storytelling, when done well, is intriguing; at its best, these productions possess an almost mystical quality, giving those who view them a window into narrative storytelling that text and photos, presented on their own, often don’t provide.
Whatever methods are used in delivering the labor of journalists, solid reporting and realistic storytelling is far from dead. Right now it’s being reborn in newsrooms where innovation and enterprise combine with technology and the fundamentals of journalism to tell stories in fresh ways. What once was processed through a reporter’s notebook and editor’s pen before landing as words on paper is now conveyed through combinations of audio and video, photography and graphic display. Of course, quality matters, as do the decisions made about which multimedia tools best serve to tell a particular story or report on an event. Not every story needs to be told with every available digital tool.
Advance Publications, the Springfield Republican’s parent company, is slashing budgets and reducing its print holdings from Michigan to Oregon to Massachusetts, a reflection of tough economic times and changing business models. In the brief time I was there, the newsroom lost 12 staffers and that wasn’t the first round of staff cuts. Given these and other depletions in reporting staff, coverage of Springfield (not to mention state and national news) suffers, especially when editors focus too deeply on planning the paper’s print edition without devoting similar attention to digital possibilities.
The valuable role The Republican’s newsroom plays in this city should never be allowed to die. Gripping too firmly to what worked in the past is not the way to best ensure the future.
Sam Butterfield, a sophomore at Hampshire College, is majoring in journalism and is an editor at The Daily Collegian, the student newspaper of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.