Shoptalk/Commentary: The Future of Newspapers?
Posted: 10/22/2012  |  By: Darrell Berkheimer
What is the future for newspapers? Will they continue to shrink in significance as the growth of Internet reading continues? Can newspapers garner enough revenue from Internet readers to remain viable?                    

For more than 30 years, newspaper readership has been declining, particularly in relationship to population growth. There are many reasons — according to various studies and opinions. But I believe there is one reason that is more responsible than any other.

Newspaper readership has declined simply because newspapers have lost relevancy. They fail to provide pertinence to the lives of most readers.

Many daily newspapers continue today only because they offer the same old, dull news that is pertinent mostly to those people who grew up in the community and never left, and those who left briefly for education and then returned.

That’s the news of births, obituaries, engagements and weddings, building permits, and the court dockets. Only a few feature stories and the sports section show some small degree of passion for what’s happening locally.

But communities have changed drastically with the mobility of our nation’s population. Increasingly larger segments of today’s communities are people who were raised in other cities and other states. The old standard news items have less significance to residents who came from elsewhere.

A century ago, newspapers showed real passion, but they lacked objectivity. They also lacked the problems resulting from the multitude of competitors provided by so many other news sources available today.

That passion of newspapers a century ago was most evident in political issues, but it also was evident through pride in public service and involvement in the controversial issues of the day.

The journalism of the mid-1900s, however, slowly shifted from passion to objectivity over all else.

That statement should not be mistaken to indicate that objectivity is no longer important. It remains just as important as ever in everyday reporting.

But too many of today’s newspapers are filled with an excess of news that is available from the multitude of other sources. And too little of today’s papers is assigned to the passion involved in discovering, reporting, and interpreting the issues that affect local citizens.

Today’s newspapers often allow only one full page daily for opinions and interpretation of the many controversial issues facing readers. And many of those pages are opinion reports on national and world issues so readily available from other sources — and on issues which most local readers feel they can have little or no effect.

The management of so many newspapers appear afraid to take positions, apparently concerned that they might irritate some readers. So what! That’s what is needed.

Newspapers need to stir the pot. And they will even gain the respect of those who often disagree with the papers’ positions. There is little relevancy for readers when newspapers continue to feed them pabulum.

Instead, newspapers need to open their pages to more opinions by surveying and soliciting comments by local readers. Readers need to feel that they are part of their local newspaper, and that their attitudes and opinions matter.
Local newspapers should be conducting surveys on what local citizens consider the most important local issues, and how they should be approached. Reporters should be interviewing the citizens who live in a different neighborhood each evening and reporting what they have to say. Newspapers should be doing whatever it takes to identify the local problems most on the minds of local citizens and to daily provide interpretive analyses and opinion pieces about those problems — properly labeled as opinions.

Newspapers must get out of the habit of limiting so much of their reporting to the so-called “experts” or “appropriate sources.” Citizens are tired of hearing so much from those considered “leaders” in the community. They want to see — in print — what their neighbors and their friends across town have to say. They want to know how other communities have resolved similar local problems.

How can newspapers expect readers to show loyalty to the newspaper if the newspaper can’t show more loyalty to what’s relevant to its readers? It’s time for newspapers to bring more passion back to the issues of their readers. They must find or develop ways to extract the passion of their readers and report that passion.

Simply put, today’s newspapers are too bland. And only when they can overcome that blandness will they become relevant again.

Darrell Berkheimer is a retired newspaper writer and editor who continues to write about journalism and the newspaper industry.