Future of newspapers impossible to predict, but it’s possible to be part of the solution

Newspapers are dying: True or false?

True if they don’t adapt to the digital world. Maybe still true even if they do.

What’s your answer?

To have a chance at survival, newspapers must stop thinking of themselves as a newspaper. Newspapers are (or at least should be) multi-platform newsgathering organizations. That’s a long and clunky title, so call yourself a newspaper if you want, but don’t think of yourself that way. This is old news, I know, but the truth is that most newspapers dabble in digital (especially mobile) and don’t jump and play in the deep end. They’d rather tread water in the shallow end where they can touch bottom once in a while and feel secure. This is where the analogy breaks down. That bottom won’t be there forever.

So what is the future of newspapers (multi-platform newsgathering organizations)? There are a few obvious things we could state, but overall we can’t know for sure. It’s not just the under-30 crowd that rarely buys a newspaper. The 45-and-overs are leaving it behind. At some point it will be completely counter-productive to print a newspaper.

As an educator I am always aware of the job market for aspiring journalists. A journalism degree prepares you for many jobs outside of a newsroom, but for those who want to work in one the news isn’t always great.

The American Society of News Editors released its annual newsroom census this week. The big number was net job losses of 3,800. The industry is down 50 percent in 2006. Some losses have been made up in digital-only newsrooms, but there is insufficient data to clearly measure that. Follow the link in the tweet below to see a full story on all the numbers.

The survey also indicates that large newspaper have increased employment by as much as 14 percent. Those numbers are a bit wobbly because of the amount of data, but it makes sense.

The big outfits are finding new revenue streams and stabilizing. Many are beginning to rebuild. Medium-sized papers, however, are the ones pulling down the overall numbers. These papers face unique challenges of trying to be bigger than they are and not wanting to look smaller than they are. They are the middle child. Medium-sized papers often have competitors bigger and smaller. They want to grow in digital but struggle to do so financially. And when a medium-sized paper gets someone good at digital there are higher-paying jobs ahead at the big papers.

Small papers are what they are. They don’t have the audience to make big money in digital, so they amble along and customers tend to stay with them more. And it’s hard to downsize a newsroom that probably only has just enough people to begin with. The link in the tweet below provides more details on the ASNE census/survey.

The re-invention of covering local news has made strides, but hindrances to growth are mostly generational. The older folks still see print and digital as competing factions in the newsroom. The youngsters see it more seamlessly. What must happen is that the older folks, like me, who are teaching the youngsters, must make every effort to be forward-thinking and forward-teaching. We must continually prepare them for digital so, first, they can find a job, and, second, they can be part of the solution for job growth in the multi-platform newspaper world.

As the faculty adviser for Cedars, I consistently talk about and push digital. But we need more. Most students who come to journalism do so because they like to write. That’s great, but teachers need to broaden that focus into other forms. All of it is storytelling, so selling them on that is the first step.

I don’t have the workforce that Steve Buttry has at LSU, but his vision and goals are like mine. With more students we could do more. Finding ways to get them excited about the possibilities is the goal.

So the future of newspapers and their descendants is really in our hands. People will go where the news is being produced. In an increasingly global world, we have to put local news where they are and make it relevant. And we have to instill that in students now. Local news can’t grown without it.

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