Why Battered Newspapers Are Still Important

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The conclusion reached in a report by the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future was dramatic and gloomy, particularly for anyone who cares about print journalism: “Most U.S. print newspapers will be gone in five years.”

That bold statement came in December 2011. But unless the industry is hit by a specialized strain of Ebola in the next 11 months, not gonna happen.

Annenberg was hardly alone in proclaiming the end of the newspaper. A headline on the web site MinnPost in September 2011 warned direly, “End of newspapers is closer than you think.” In August 2006, The Economist seemed to be seeking a Scotland Yard investigation when it asked, “Who killed the newspaper?” Back in the 1920s, a dark, primitive time before Facebook, Twitter and Adele, there was speculation that radio meant the end of newspapers.

But they are still here. Battered, beleaguered, but still here.

Which is hardly to say that they aren’t endangered. The advent of the digital age has thoroughly disrupted the industry, dramatically shrinking ad revenue and making the days of eye-popping profits a distant memory. The newspaper business is in a desperate struggle to reinvent itself for the digital world.

But despite their diminished state, a flurry of developments in recent months from Philadelphia to Las Vegas to Los Angeles underscores newspapers’ lingering value, both to wealthy people who want to own them and to citizens who depend on them for information that is crucial in a democracy. (The term “newspaper” is a bit of a misnomer, since we are talking about newspapers’ journalism on a wide variety of platforms.)

There is one overriding reason for this. It’s true that we’ve seen the advent of impressive digital news outfits, from ProPublica (investigative reporting) to Politico (saturation political news) to BuzzFeed (sometimes inspired empty-calorie fluff augmented by serious reporting about national and global affairs) to The Texas Tribune (Texas government).

But what we haven’t seen is the onset of local and regional digital news operations with staffs the size of traditional newspapers, staffs big enough to cover an entire region. There are lots of valuable and admirable local sites, but for the most part they are complementary to local newspapers, not nearly big enough to compete with them or supplant them.

In Philadelphia this week, Gerry Lenfest, a billionaire businessman and philanthropist, donated the Inquirer, the Daily News and philly.com to the Institute for Journalism in New Media, a newly created non-profit whose board he will head. The news outlets will continue to function as for-profit businesses as a subsidiary of the Institute.

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Source: USA Today | Rem Rieder