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Thinking About Why We Still Need Newspapers

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Man reading newspaper in living room
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In the three or so years I've been running this website I've written a lot about how newspapers have fallen on hard times. Advertising revenue and circulation have long been in decline; digital media drained away some revenue sources; and both problems were only exacerbated by the recession.

Media geeks can debate whether newspapers could have avoided their current predicament, whether their wounds were self-inflicted. There are plenty of pundits proclaiming that newspapers have only themselves to blame, that they were too slow to respond the digital media revolution.

But that's the thing about revolutions. You don't really know they're revolutions until you're in the middle of them, and by then it's often too late to react in any meaningful way, so all you can do is be carried along by the tide.

That's why I think that most - not all, but most - of the problems newspapers face were unavoidable, that they were systemic changes wrought by profound transformations in our technology, culture and society.

Having said that, I do think newspapers haven't done a very good job of justifying their continued existence to a skeptical public.

Just look at the controversy over The New York Times paywall. Media geeks didn't just babble on about how it would fail; they seemed to take it almost as an insult that the Times would even dare to charge for its content. After all, the geeks shouted to the rooftops, everything on the web is supposed to be free.

The obvious response to such blather was this: The Times produces reporting and analysis that has intrinsic value. And if something has value, in a capitalist system, we pay for it.

Again, it's an obvious argument. But it's not one I heard very much in the cacophony of voices debating the issue. Indeed, I'm not even sure I heard it made much by people from the Times itself.

Some would argue that The Times, as the nation's flagship paper, is uniquely qualified to make this argument. I disagree. Sure, there's only one Times, but there are plenty of other terrific large dailies around the country, and lots of very good medium-sized and small papers as well. Not all are great, but nearly all, I would argue, produce content that's worth paying for.

Let's say you live in a small town in the Midwest. You have school-aged children and want to know what's going on with the local school district. There may or may not be a local citizen journalism website or Patch.com page devoted to your town, but even if there is, chances are the best source of news about your local schools is your local paper.

Why? Because even in an age of downsized newsrooms, only the local paper will have a staff of sufficient size and experience to cover the local schools in any depth or detail. Chances are only the local paper will have an education beat reporter.

And if you're a parent with kids, isn't it worth something to you to know everything you can about the local schools? Wouldn't you be willing to pay something, either in the form of a print or online subscription, for that information?

Because last time I checked, the Huffington Post wasn't covering school boards in Racine, Wisconsin, or Dubuque, Iowa. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Back to my original point: Newspapers haven't done a very good job of promoting themselves to a public that's conditioned to getting so much information online for free. They haven't explained what they offer that no one else does.

They need to start. Now.

Also read:

Why Newspapers Are Still Important

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