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VOL. 124 | NO. 83 | Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Decline of Daily Newspapers a Sad, Sad Spectacle

By ERIC BARNES | The Memphis News

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Eric Barnes is the publisher of The Daily News, The Memphis News and Chandler Reports.

When we started talking about ideas for the cover of this week’s issue, a number of people thought we should focus on a Commercial Appeal news box. The boxes are iconic – not just as symbols of the CA’s presence in Memphis, but of all newspapers big and small, here and elsewhere.

Then someone said, “Well, what about getting a photo of one of the really beat-up boxes? There’s a great one on Adams.”

Brad Johnson, our senior designer, took the photo, put it on the cover, and sent me a mockup.

“Oh,” I thought when I saw it, “that might just be a little cruel.”

And it might be. But it’s real.

To be a small irritant to a Goliath local newspaper like the CA is, I have to admit, endlessly fun. At The Daily News and The Memphis News, we take the greatest pleasure in breaking a story ahead of the CA, and in covering aspects of local government and the economy they’ve completely missed.

This sort of thing can make the editors and reporters here downright giddy.

And yet, as someone who’s been in publishing one way or another for nearly 20 years now, I can’t help feeling that, in fact, it shouldn’t be so. We really shouldn’t be able to outdo the behemoth metro paper on such a regular basis.

The Memphis Flyer, another small-staffed, locally owned paper, shouldn’t be able to one-up the CA as often as it does.

But they do, just like we do. And, at the risk of sounding arrogant, the situation only seems to be getting better for us, and worse for the CA. (Have you seen the CA’s business section lately? Punch line: Neither have I.)

Papers like ours are able to outdo the CA first and foremost because we work hard and hire great journalists.

But the CA, despite its layoffs, still has great journalists too. And more of them than our staff and The Flyer’s combined. As Bill Dries finds in his cover story, the heart of the problem seems to be that the CA, like so many metro papers, is struggling to redefine itself. Struggling to find a mission. Struggling to stay focused.

There’s little evidence the situation will improve anytime soon.

On the Google home page that seems to so dominate my day, I’ve set up an RSS feed of headlines from Editor & Publisher, the trade publication for newspapers. On good days, the headlines that roll by highlight the various accomplishments of journalists and newspapers around the country: uncovering corporate malfeasance, discovering government corruption, profiling an exceptionally inspiring person.

Those are the good days. Yet for most of the past year or two, there have been too few of those days. Instead, the headlines that roll past are consistently dominated by bad news – journalists laid off, editions being cut, newspapers shutting down completely.

Nothing about that gives me pleasure, or makes me giddy. It’s sad, actually, and quite distressing. The press, especially in written form, is one of the fundamental bedrocks of a free society. At their best, journalists are an active check on power, be it the power of government or corporations or even just the masses.

That’s because journalism is fundamentally about curiosity, intelligence, the ability to assimilate and distill complicated issues and the means to publish that information thoughtfully and completely. Newspapers have proven themselves as the best outlet for this sort of journalism. Magazines are a close second. Television is an increasingly distant third.

Note that, for me, a newspaper is a newspaper regardless of whether it’s published in print or on the screen. I’m not one of those people who laments the death of print. To me, paper is a format no better or worse than an LCD screen. The Internet is a delivery mechanism no better or worse than the delivery boys of old.

There is, however, a distinction I’m making here between newspaper journalists and other types of reporters, namely TV reporters. Local TV plays a roll in journalism, I do know that.

But TV news organizations across the country made a decision many years ago to shed any pretense of deep and complicated journalism, instead investing heavily in a simple and repetitious formula that emphasizes brevity, personality, intrigue and crime.

It’s a formula that, I fear, is making its way into metro papers like the CA. Sections are being cut, scandals and so-called scandals are being overblown beyond all sense of perspective (and to the detriment of covering much more important things), and news personalities are being pushed forward even as other, more experienced reporters are laid off.

As you get older – I’m all of 41 now, but still, it seems older, if not old – you become more and more skeptical of people who wax nostalgic about “how great things used to be.” Cars, sports, education, America – you’ll hear these people lamenting their decline. I’ve gotten to where I dismiss most of that.

But when it comes to newspapers, I can’t help but think there’s no room for skepticism as we lament their decline. Because newspapers – and, more specifically, the journalists who work in them – are failing, fading and nowhere near as strong as they once were. It’s not nostalgia. It’s a harsh reality.

I lament the decline of newspapers. I hate to see them fail. Because I remember how great they used to be.

See, I am getting old.

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