Hold the obituary for newspaper journalism

By Jim Willse ’67

Jim Willse '67This just in: America’s newspapers have fallen on hard times.

There’s no shortage of film at 11: Empty desks in formerly boisterous newsrooms. Seven-day-a-week publications reduced to three. Sunday papers shadows of their former hernia-inducing selves, their newsholes sharply cut, their classified ad sections virtually nonexistent.

The story doesn’t require a talking head to explain it. The explosion of digital information has bled readers and advertisers from a business not known for its forward thinking. Presses and trucks, once the industry’s competitive assets, are now costly legacies of an industrial-age business model no longer generating enough revenue to pay the bills.

The decline of newspapers has a lot of people worried. How will we know what’s going on in our communities if there’s no reporter left at City Hall? Must we turn to a legion of know-nothing bloggers? It’s not a pretty picture, but before we join in the general keening, a little reality therapy is in order, to wit:

  • My father had a line he’d trot out periodically: “I’m not the man I used to be, and what’s more, I never was.” The same might be said of the nation’s newspapers.

    Most of us get our news not from national papers like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, or from big ­“metros” in Boston or Chicago or Denver. The bulk of local news comes from the 1,300 or so dailies in smaller places such as, say, Utica, where I began my career 45 years ago. Let’s be ­honest — have those hometown papers done such a hot job keeping local politicians honest, decoding how public money is spent, covering all parts of our communities?

    Let’s not bemoan the loss of journalism that wasn’t all that great in the first place.
  • News on the Internet isn’t just cute cat videos and trash celebrity news. There’s some pretty good journalism out there, for those willing to support it.

    A number of cities — Hartford, Minneapolis, San Diego, Austin, Honolulu and San ­Francisco among them — have spawned online-only newsrooms operating at a fraction of the cost of newspapers, and in real time. In New Jersey, for example, former colleagues from my old newspaper run the website NJ Spotlight, ­providing thoughtful analysis of education, energy and health issues. Down the road from where I live, another ex-print reporter has a website that covers Morristown, N.J., as well as the local newspaper ever did.
  • Digital technology may have eroded newspapers’ franchise, but it’s also produced some marvelous ways to tell stories. Even a newsroom that has suffered staff cutbacks can use new software to make sense out of obscure government data and then present the findings in lively and accessible graphics. Compelling video is being shot and edited on inexpensive equipment. The Star-Ledger, where I used to work, has New Jersey’s largest tele­vision newsroom; two dozen reporters routinely shoot broadcast-quality news ­features for the web, and advertisers are ­buying spots.

Despite all the recent heartburn, I remain optimistic about the future of journalism.

Journalists do three kinds of work: They cover news, they offer analysis and comment, and they produce “enterprise” — stories that take extra time and skill.

In the digital age, the news will pretty much take care of itself. The legislative hearings and the school board meetings will get covered by someone — a blogger, a “citizen journalist” with an iPhone, maybe even a paid reporter.

Likewise, there’ll be no shortage of comment, not with social media and the blogosphere, online “aggregators” like Huffington Post, and the gaping maw that is cable television news, where any development, no matter how trivial, will have several “experts” bloviating about it.

The more uncertain prospect is the enterprise — the in-depth profiles, the investigations that take months, the specialized reporting on schools, science, health care, courts, banks and so on.

The owners of newspapers that have cut their staffs and reduced their publication schedules assure us that once they are on a more solid economic footing, they’ll devote plenty of resources to quality, hard-to-do journalism. Time will tell whether they mean it.

Even if they don’t, I choose to believe there’s enough of an audience — and therefore a business — for journalism that is honest, engaging and nutritious. If the result is no longer on a printed page, so what? 

Just as long as it gets done.

Jim Willse ’67, retired from New Jersey’s Star-Ledger, which he edited for 15 years. During that time, the paper was a Pulitzer Prize finalist eight times, winning twice, and was recognized nationally for its business, sports and ­features coverage. Prior to The Ledger, Willse was editor and ­publisher of The New York Daily News. He has been a visiting ­professor at Princeton, where he’s ­conducted writing and business seminars, and is at work on a book about the origins of the heroin plague in New York City.

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