Friday, February 15, 2008

A farewell to paper and ink

Last Thursday, Madison-based newspaper the Capital Times announced that, after 90 years as an afternoon daily, it would be switching to a predominantly online presence, with a twice weekly tabloid sized paper going out with its sister publication, the Wisconsin State Journal.

Everyone and their uncle has since commented on the change, and I've been reluctant to add my voice to the cacophony both because I was never a subscriber to the paper and because the issue of news moving away from print and toward the internet is anything but black and white.

I have a few reasons, some superficial, for preferring to get my news online. I enjoy the wide variety of sources and perspectives that are so easily available via the internet. Also, though, in the past few years I've developed a mild allergy to newsprint that makes reading the paper a less-than pleasant process. I blame all the time I spent working as co-editor of my college paper and the huge quantities of ink I likely inhaled during that time, but whatever the real cause, it's hard to read when you're so busy sneezing.

Still, there's something fundamentally necessary about the local newspaper. In some cases, they're a community's only source for local news. And yes, even in this day and age, there are still many people who don't have or can't afford regular internet access. In their case, the local newspaper may be their only source of written news.

In their heyday, there were around 1,500 afternoon/evening papers in print. That number has since fallen dramatically, to just around 700. The average number of households that subscribe to one or more papers has also fallen, with readership numbers failing to keep pace with the growth in population (source).

Internet news is great for its sheer scope and variety, but when a publication switches from predominantly print to predominantly electronic, the move is typically coupled with a dramatic cut in staffing. That's the main worry I have when it comes to the Capital Times' changes.

First off, the support staff loses their jobs: the people who work and maintain the printing presses and those who deliver the papers. Lower level copy editors, often individuals trying to break into regular reporting, are likely to be cut as well. Even some seasoned vets will lose their jobs. All told, the cuts in staff lead to fewer eyes and ears on the ground, less thorough coverage of the various newsworthy events around town, and thus, less variety.

I can't be alone in the fact that I read local and regional news sources for local and regional news, and not so much for national or international items. It's the same reason why I try to keep my pontificating on this here blog away from too much national or international issues and stick with more local stories. There are plenty of better qualified people covering the world (and with the internet, we have far greater access to those sources, many of which are more local to the events). People turn to local news sources, and yes even bloggers, for local content, stuff that likely won't be covered anywhere else.

All this isn't to say that I suspect The Capital Times will stray away from covering local and regional content. But their ability to cover as much of it will certainly be hampered by the cuts in staffing that become necessary when your sole source of revenue are online ads. And that, I think, is what concerns me the most.

In the end, I will reserve judgment until their new incarnation has had time to prove itself one way or another. I sincerely hope that they're able to maintain high quality and diverse coverage. And I thank everyone at The Capital Times for 90 years of progressive news delivery.


Nat said...

I have mixed feelings about this as well (in general). I am trained as a print journalist and well, I do love to sit in my big red chair and read the paper while I drink my morning coffee. But I love my news reader too. (Maybe a bit too much.)

I think for local news, it's hard to find good reliable sources. I think people of "a certain generation" are going to get their information. Tv? (ack.)

George H. said...

Your points are good, and I think this may be the most important: "fewer eyes and ears on the ground, less thorough coverage of the various newsworthy events around town, and thus, less variety."
I worry that media changes reduce the choice available to the media consumer, the reader, the listener, the watcher. The fewer media sources available, the greater the threat of conformity, the less likely that creativity will be given a chance to sink or swim. Less is not better. Look at the variability of content we are blessed with in Madison, all the way from young blogs finding a place in the choir to re-invigorated former journos. There should always be room for another voice, another viewpoint. I worry a little about media covering themselves, or about conflicts that erode credibility. Should a blog that has a direct relationship with a group present news about that group without disclosing the relationship? What about all the back-patting that goes on between an increasingly co-related, incestuous network of media that, yes, is reluctant to self-examine and, eventually acknowledge and correct misdirection? All outlets for information, comment and entertainment present a different viewpoint. I have always wondered about people who brag about getting their "news" from just one source, as if ignorance and self-limitation are things to boast about.

The Lost Albatross