The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events.
— John Kenneth Galbraith
Doubt the conventional wisdom unless you can verify it with reason and experiment.
— Steve Albini
One quintessentially bright Birmingham morning some months back, I found myself in one of our fine local coffee establishments, sitting opposite a visitor to our city. He was with a national consulting firm that was doing some internal revisioning-type work with a local organization. I was one of several people the organization had recommended he interview to get a feel for this peculiar little corner of the universe.
As I recall, it was a stimulating conversation, as opposed to a rote Q-and-A. He was after real information, wanted the benefit of whatever knowledge I could give him, along with my perceptions and opinions not just about the organization with which he was working, but also about Birmingham in general — our history, our economic and social structure, our politics and culture, our prospects for the future.
He was a sharp guy.
At one point, though, he asked about the role of local journalism — in particular, a local newspaper — in a changing media universe. We’d talked earlier about Weld, including our company’s commitment to printing a weekly newspaper. He returned to that topic in a tone of polite commiseration, like that of a man who has found himself obliged to visit the sickroom of someone he doesn’t really know.
“I mean, it’s gotta be tough,” he said. “You’ve still got some people who like to pick up a newspaper, but how long does that last? Young people don’t read newspapers.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I replied, grinning.
I pointed over his shoulder, directing his attention to the table directly behind him, where three women, clearly in their early-to-mid-20s, were waiting for their breakfast orders to arrive. Two of them were reading from copies of Weld. The third was talking on her cell phone; her personal copy of our newspaper protruded from the shoulder bag she’d tossed into the empty chair beside her on sitting down.
“Wow,” the consultant said. “Nice testimonial. What are you doing right?”
I grinned again. How could I do otherwise, having been first granted the timely gift of being seated near three young women who were — and, presumably, are — readers of my newspaper, and then handed the opportunity to make a pithy comment about it?
“Being a newspaper,” was my reply.
That was a particularly sweet moment, a story that I have retold any number of times (if you have heard me tell it, and are still reading, please accept my heartfelt thanks). But while particular in its timing and circumstance, it was not and is not an unusual occurrence, this manifestation of physical evidence that people — young and old, black and white, rich and poor, urban dweller and suburbanite, spanning virtually any dichotomy you’d care to inject — do, in fact, read newspapers.
This statement, of course, flies in the face of the conventional wisdom, which is that — say it with me — Newspapers are dying. In a digital world, print is a cumbersome relic, at best a quaint tactile reminder of how much evolutionary ground our species has covered since the prehistoric times prior to, say, roughly 1995.
Weld has never bought into that piece of “wisdom.” We believe in the intrinsic value — journalistic, economic, civic — of a good newspaper. We also believe that print remains a vital source of local news and information — and a highly effective means for local businesses and organizations to reach current and prospective customers via advertising — and that it will continue to be vital in those ways for the foreseeable future, perhaps even increasingly so.
Print is not dying. What it is doing is changing. It has been changing for some time now, and it’s going to keep changing for a while longer yet. I believe that the ultimate outcome of that change can be — should be; ought to be — that “smart” newspapers continue to reinforce and expand the ways in which they are integral to the lives of their readers and, by extension, the life of the community as a whole.
Besides, nobody has really figured out how to make money “doing” actual journalism on the Internet. That’s especially true of media companies that operate primarily or exclusively at a local level — the level at which, I would argue, good journalism is most sorely needed. It’s also where good journalism is most immediately effective, where in-depth news and useful information — and, dare I say it in the same breath, substantive relationships between media companies and advertisers that enhance the ability to produce and support good journalism — have the most immediate impacts.
Note the use of the plural, impacts. That is most intentional, for good local journalism has any number of great and salutary impacts on every facet of the community it reaches. It touches people, neighborhoods, governments, organizations, and institutions. It is a cornerstone of democracy, a touchstone of our individual and collective senses of being part of something that is larger than us, and yet visible in virtually every aspect of our day-to-day lives. It helps to maintain and build on a democratic ideal of community.
I believe that good local newspapers — yes, even at this late date — are uniquely equipped and oriented to provide that kind of journalism. That belief is based on our experience to date with Weld, of which we will mark five years late this summer. It’s also based on the theory that in this turbulent media climate, local newspapers with strong brand identification have opportunities to build on that established presence, and to continue to evolve as a source and a resource that not only is valued, but — for substantial numbers of readers, advertisers and community partners — preferred.
Admittedly, you could interject here that, as the co-owner of a company for which the publication of a weekly local newspaper is the predominant source of revenue, I have a pecuniary interest in the present and future of local newspapers. You could also point out that I am a 54-year-old man and suggest that, as such, I might be inclined toward mawkish sentimentality over the role that newspapers played in my own intellectual development (such as it has been), and the sundry impacts of newspapers on the formation and evolution (again, feel free to dissent from my choice of terms) of my senses of citizenship and civic engagement.
And you would be right on both counts, as far as that goes.
Fortunately, you don’t have to take my word for it. That’s thanks in part to my friend, Carol Nunnelley, executive director of BirminghamWatch, a nonprofit web-based news organization launched in 2015 (full disclosure: I was one of the founders of BirminghamWatch, and was replaced on the board of directors at my own request once the organization began its active work).
Over last weekend, Carol sent me a link to a scholarly paper titled “Reality Check: The Performance Gap between U.S. Newspapers’ Print and Online Products, 2007-2015.” The paper originated in the journalism department of the University of Texas, and will be presented formally in June, at the annual conference of the International Communication Association, held this year in Japan.
You can read the paper for yourself at irischyi.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/ newspaper_performance_gap.pdf, or access it from this story on weldbham.com. The upshot is that the authors — UT journalism professor Iris Chyi and doctoral student Ori Tenenboim — write that their “findings raise questions about U.S. newspapers’ technology-driven strategy and call for a critical re-examination of unchecked assumptions about the future of newspapers.”
Twenty years into U.S. newspapers’ experiment with digital, the paper says, many are stuck between a shrinking market for their print product and an unsuccessful experiment for their online offerings. But even as newspaper readership has declined — though at significantly slower rates than the rush to digital anticipated — the digital side has not produced nearly enough revenue to fill the gap left by lost print advertisers. Among other key findings in the analysis of print and online readership in 51 cities (regretfully, or perhaps not, our beloved Alabama is not one of the 27 states, plus DC, represented in the survey), reproduced in the language of the paper’s authors:
- The (supposedly dying) print product still reaches far more readers than the (supposedly promising) digital product…and this holds true across all age groups.
- These major newspapers’ online readership has shown little or no growth since 2007, and more than half of them have seen a decline since 2011.
- The online edition contributes a relatively small number of online-only users to the combined readership in the newspapers’ home markets.
What does all of that mean — as it relates to Weld, as it relates to Birmingham, as it relates to Welding for Birmingham? What does it mean to a newspaper whose readership and reach and influence not only is not shrinking, but in fact is expanding? And what, if anything, does the continued and increasing presence of such a newspaper mean to Birmingham and its future?
I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. Unlike the late, great Yogi Berra, however, I do suspect some things. Among other things, I suspect that our community will be worse off if good journalism — not just at Weld, but in each and every one of the several other local quarters in which it survives — goes away.
Can Birmingham survive without it — without the kind of journalism that local newspapers are, even at this late date, uniquely equipped to provide? Well, sure, I guess, if survival is the highest prize you seek.
The real question is, Can Birmingham — or any community that aspires to greatness — flourish in the absence of that kind of journalism?
I don’t know the answer to that one, either. But, even in the face of some very conventional wisdom, I have my suspicions.