Lecture asks: who needs newspapers anyway?

Dr. Sara Brown and Professor Paul Steinle presented the results of a 13-month research trip on April 12, a trip spanning over 30,000 miles across the country surveying more than 150 newspaper industry professionals about the future of printed news.

Brown and Steinle created WhoNeedsNewspapers.org, a strategic multimedia project launched in September 2010 designed to serve as a database with up-to-date documentation of the status and condition of prominent community newspapers in the United States by “highlighting one outstanding community newspaper in each of the 50 states.”

In the lecture, Brown and Steinle discussed the ways in which U.S. newspaper companies are repositioning, reallocating, and reimagining their operations in the digital age. Among the adjustments discussed were adding of delivery assets and transactional revenues, the newfound emphasis on information as well as news, and the use of convergence between different types of available media such as radio and television.

“Web-first now trumps print-first,” said Steinle, adding that this new trend leads to the dilemma faced by news organizations when deciding whether or not to install paywalls or not, to make their web sites free or to charge for them.

“A lot of people believe news should be a free site,” he said.

He went on to note that 90 percent of a news organization’s income is made from print, with only 10 percent coming from web-based services.

On one hand this statistic rationalizes printing costs, Steinle said, conducive to streamlining, outsourcing and industrializing the printing process.

On the other hand online news has become indispensable in the timely reporting of breaking news, and Steinle devoted some time to discussing strategies for integrating this asset effectively and economically in journalism.

Several of Steinle’s suggestions were common sense reasoning.

“We can assign reporters to report for multiple platforms,” he said.  “[We can] use social media like Facebook and Twitter to promote readership and to break news . . . use web feedback to guide coverage decisions . . . [and] emphasize local coverage both on the front page and overall.”

Steinle also suggested some strategies that are controversial in the journalism industry, such as using other news and information sources to fill in for traditional methods of reporting.

“The idea of ‘community reporters’ is something I have mixed feelings about. It is not without risks,” Steinle explained.

Dr. Sara Brown spoke during the second half of the lecture, continuing where Steinle left off to discuss other key findings of their research.

“Newspaper market-size matters,” she said. “Medium to smaller markets are less challenged.”

She cited three keys to success and economic survival for print newspapers: an emphasis on local coverage, watchdog reporting, and “community dialogue” coupled with philanthropic public service.

“Just about every newspaper said in their own words that community dialogue is the glue,” Brown said, commending independent newspapers particularly in this regard. She also said that there is no “Holy Grail” in terms of newspaper profitability, and that the news organizations of tomorrow will have to use a variety of different revenue streams to stay afloat.

Brown also touched upon what she called the “digital investment dilemma,” or the resistance of newsrooms to investing in digital technologies because of limited financial returns. She ended on a positive note however, adding that “the search for solutions is dynamic.”

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