My Google alert the other day said The Washington Post was being sold by the Graham family to Jeff Bezos, the Amazon chief, and the news was a little jarring (though it really shouldn’t have been – Google alerts, after all, started elbowing newspapers out of the picture some time ago). It was another signal that the decline in newspaper readership (and our collective tolerance for news of substance) is chronic.
But it wasn’t as jarring as that day 10 years ago when I was teaching journalism at Indiana University. It was my first day as an adjunct professor, and I thought a good conversation starter would be learning what my students were reading. After all, good writers and reporters learn how to write and report by reading the works of others. All these budding journalists, I assumed, were devouring the best of the best.
A few reported they were reading The New York Times on most days (my liberal heart did the tango). A couple said they regularly were reading The Indianapolis Star (thankfully, before “Chicks on the Right” had an opportunity to warp their young minds). A few more said their source of information was the Indiana Daily Student – and while I’m a proud alum of that newspaper, I’ve never believed it should be your sole source of news. But then we hit rock bottom: a young woman proudly said she read E.com every day (E.com has transformed into eonline.com, where you can learn whether Emma Roberts was turned away by a bakery for line cutting, or details of the Ashley Tisdale engagement with Christopher French).
The blessing and curse that is the Internet has changed reading habits and circulation figures forever. I’m not sure what happened to my eonline.com reader – perhaps she writes for eonline.com – but I’m sure she’s not alone among today’s readers in avoiding The Washington Post for something a little lighter and more fun (though, personally, I find reading the Post’s editorial page fun. Except for Charles Krauthammer).
Why the droning about newspapers and readership trends? Because I worry about them going the way of the Edsel. Pew Research has interesting data on readership and advertising trends. Newspapers in Seattle and Denver have closed shop, and the Detroit Free Press prints just a few times a week. There’s a website called “Newspaper Deathwatch” that has a list of dearly departed publications since 2007, along with a “Works in Progress” category that lists newspapers that have moved partly or entirely away from print editions. And newspaper ownership is quickly changing hands (The Washington Post and Boston Globe are among those most recently swapped out). And, at alarming rates, people are getting their news from Facebook and Twitter.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with Facebook and Twitter. I use both. But without genuine journalism and professional reporting, Facebook and Twitter are just short, random thoughts and pictures of chocolate cake. Without real journalism, activism will die out and our uninformed electorate will become even more uninformed. The newspaper model is desperately broken – and as a former small-town journalist, it pains me to write those words.
Newspapers are slowly beginning to charge for online content, and while it’s a hassle, it’s also the right move. Their stories are their product, and there’s no reason their product should be given away for free. But in exchange, they need to offer better stories. The bar is higher, and the competition deeper.
Granted, not everyone is reading eonline.com. I may even give it a try sometime (I’m curious whether Emma Roberts is back in good graces with her baker). But we need many more people reading The Washington Post, too. Our collective civics IQ depends upon it.
Greg Kueterman is the Director of Government Legislation; Access and Public Policy Issues at Eli Lilly and Company in Indianapolis. He’s a former newspaper reporter who never really dreamed that four years of journalism school would lead to tweeting 140 characters at a time — but now he kind of likes it (@GregKueterman). A graduate of Indiana University, Greg’s a big fan of NFL football, bike trails and non-fiction. He blogs professionally at LillyPad, where he focuses on Life at Lilly issues, including policies that affect the pharmaceutical industry and the company’s focus on innovation.