Did you hug your newspaper today?

September 29, 2010

Guelph Mercury, 09/29/10 newspapers

Look over there, kids! A man selling a used Pontiac for $600! Over here, tales of hijinks in City Hall! Around the corner, a woman predicting the future!

All this, and much more on any given day inside the pages of a newspaper, a strange contraption made of the fibers from dead, bleached trees and vegetable ink. There’s no on-switch, no downloadable apps and no batteries needed.

If you’re under 30, you’re probably asking, who would want to buy that? Newspapers, aren’t they like rotary-dial phones and eight-track players?
That’s become a popular remark among non readers today, kind of like dismissing all politicians as crooks and liars.

There’s no question – 2009 was terrible year for newspapers, when the recession took all the industry’s problems and stepped on the gas. Some journalists became indignant, even angry at the public. And that’s about the dumbest thing they could do.

Newspapers have tried dozens of different approaches to stopping their decline, and have failed in dozens of different ways. The promise of delivering news online has fallen short. After the industry moved to give away their Internet content for free, newspapers still struggle to find ways to make money doing it.

Across Canada, papers slashed staff and spending last year, trying to stop the bleeding. The big fish were cutting, too: All the papers in the Canwest chain, plus other giants such as the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail, saw their staff levels drop.

The story was even worse in the U.S., where the titans of the newspaper industry were slashing staff, silencing their presses and declaring bankruptcy.

Newspapers were crumbling at such a rate that their across-the-board decline spawned a website, newspaperdeathwatch.com, which reads like an obituary page for North American print journalism.

There are still no immediate solutions to the problems facing newspapers, but there are ideas. American authors John Nichols and Robert McChesney are calling for massive government intervention. They want an annual tax credit up to $200 for people who subscribe to daily newspapers; funds for student newspapers, websites and radio stations at every high school and college; and free postage for magazines that get less than 20 per cent their revenues from advertising.

There are other innovations being tested, too: for-fee daily electronic newsletters; micro-payments for individual stories on the model of iTunes; free delivery of the newspaper with each online subscription.

There’s a certain desperation attached to the discussions around saving newspapers. This isn’t just about rescuing a product from history’s dustbin. The decline of newspapers is “the most serious threat in our lifetimes to self-government and the rule of law as it has been understood,” Nichols and McChesney wrote.

If that’s true, newspapers haven’t done a very good job of telling people why they are an important part of their lives. They need to show non-readers how they give a voice to the stories and struggles of their towns. They need to convince them that being informed and connected to your community matters, and that one of the best ways to do that is by reading your local paper.

If city council pushes through a steep property tax hike or cuts funding to the library, who tells residents about it? No one covers communities more extensively than local newspapers. They are the forum where a town’s challenges are debated and local decision makers held accountable.

Pete Hamill, former editor of the New York Daily News, once wrote a book describing newspapers as the old-fashioned town square – the place where citizens gather to do business, be entertained, be informed and discuss whatever is on their mind.

That’s a great image, and newspapers ought to promote it. As the town square on newsprint, they have a good story to tell. But of course, you, increasingly rare reader, already knew that.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com, and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca

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