10 August 2011 **** Front Page

The Decline of Serious Journalism

Thoughts on the Status of Newspapers and Other Media

by Laura L. Klure

People who care about others, who are concerned about what is happening in the world — such folks try to stay informed. I like to think I am one of those people. We subscribe to two daily newspapers, two local weeklies, a handful of special-topic monthly magazines, plus various organizational newsletters. We watch the news on two different TV channels, occasionally listen to radio, and we notice the news alerts on our internet home page and search the web for topics of interest. So, why do we still sometimes feel uninformed?

Our world is huge, and changes are swirling around it rapidly. The changes in the media, in information technologies, the internet, social media — all can be overwhelming. When one is trying to keep track of fast-moving events, such as wars, famine, floods, earthquakes, economic upsets, governmental activities, global climate change, diseases, and a host of other important factors, well… the task appears impossible for one human being. And to make matters worse, some of the mass media seem overly obsessed with the foibles of celebrities, to the detriment of their coverage of “real news.” We want to be able to trust the media we rely upon.

In the past for many Americans, staying informed meant reading a local daily newspaper. This model is apparently not being adopted by as many young adults today. (1) When the world-wide information quandary looms too large to easily grasp, it may serve to look at one small corner.

Decline of a Local Newspaper

It is a very sad thing, for long-time readers to watch the decline of their local newspaper. In the United States in recent decades, for a growing number of newspapers the decline has proceeded so far that the papers died, ceased publication. The website Newspaper Death Watch lists 12 major local dailies that have closed since 2007, plus 8 that have adopted hybrid online/print or online-only models. This list is probably seriously lacking, regarding many smaller print media that have died without nation-wide attention.

In Riverside, California, several changes were noted by local readers as being connected to a perceived decline of The Press-Enterprise (called the P-E by many locals) (2). However, the newspaper was unavoidably impacted by events larger than the communities it served, and no one factor can be blamed for placing the newspaper in the difficult circumstances in which it now struggles to continue.

The P-E was created in 1931 by a merger of two formerly separate local daily newspapers, both of which had started in the late 1800s. For many years the P-E stood virtually alone, as the primary print source of news for residents of Riverside and other Riverside County communities. There were other smaller newspapers in some cities in the county, and some small local magazines that contained bits of news content. But if a reader wanted a comprehensive newspaper, delivered daily, that contained local, national, and world-wide coverage, the P-E was it, the only option. The P-E was owned locally, by a few families, with family members working as editors and managers of the paper.

A large change in the nature of the P-E and its relationship to Riverside came in 1997, when the owners decided to sell. The paper was purchased by the Belo Corporation, a publicly traded company headquartered in Dallas, Texas. (3)

In the minds of some Riversiders, the ownership of the P-E by a distant corporation, rather than by local folks, was a dramatic and ominous change. This feeling was heightened when editors, reporters, and other staff members who had lived in the local area for a long time retired, or were laid off. Editorially, the paper began to clearly shift to the right.

For Riversiders, other shifts brought further erosion of their confidence that they were getting adequate local coverage: the paper expanded its outreach to San Bernardino County, and they stopped printing differing “local editions” for various areas in Riverside County. This meant the staff reporters were covering significantly larger territories, and more regions were being squeezed into a single “edition.” The size of the paper didn't go down right away, but there were fewer articles pertaining specifically to the City of Riverside. In earlier years there might have been a dozen or so feature articles covering happenings just within the City of Riverside, whereas now that dozen is drawn from the entire Riverside County, plus San Bernardino County.

The paper went through several rounds of lay-offs, with many of those dismissed being long-time writers and editors. To try to sustain local coverage, the paper started using more local freelancers (recognizable by a different type of by-line). Compared to full-time staff, these writers receive minimal compensation. But even cheaper for the paper are the articles now noted as “Submitted to the Press-Enterprise,” meaning that they are press releases, written to sound like articles, and given to the paper. Gone are the days when all such un-edited, not fact-checked pieces would be clearly marked as “Advertorials.” Some non-profits have realized that such submissions are the most likely path to getting coverage for their events.

For the P-E, subscriptions have declined in recent years, from 189,000 in 2006 down to 149,608 in 2009. This dip occurred while the population of the City of Riverside grew, from 293,761 in 2006, up to 297,859 in 2009. The P-E's geographic subscription area had also increased, in two counties with growing populations — i.e., the paper's news coverage and their subscriber bases were both getting spread more thinly. (4) And, in the eyes of many, these factors all lowered the paper's quality.

International news is an area of special concern, because most newspapers no longer have their own correspondents located outside of their main locale. The P-E, like many other media, now relies totally on news services for info not pertaining to its home area. Fewer investigative reporters are searching for information, and they are sending the same information to an extremely wide variety of media — which means that if they got it wrong, more people are misinformed. Ergo, a decline in the quality of our information.

For Europeans accustomed to hearing news about a host of countries outside their own, it may be surprising to note that American daily newspapers often only have about 6-12 major feature articles, plus a handful of blurbs, about countries other than the U.S. The Wall Street Journal may be one of the few that is frequently on the high side or above that range. (5) Get the picture? Limited info.

It's not difficult to guess what must have happened to the finances of the P-E during the current economic troubles. Since newspapers rely on both advertising and subscription revenues, if both are in decline the paper has difficulties. The ongoing financial crisis ultimately impacts ALL media. So, now we're back to the bigger picture: print media trying to do more, in a time of less income, with increasing competition from other types of media.

Is the Medium the Message?

Let's re-phrase Marshall McLuhan's famous quote, since I don't completely accept that “The medium is the message.” (6) I find it a bit more appropriate to say, “The medium influences the message.” And there is no doubt that we are subject to a variety of influences today.

Can one become sufficiently informed by just consulting cyberspace? Is it more difficult to access factual, accurate, detailed info on the web? When you scan two pages of an open newspaper are you seeing a lot more info than you would in the same time spent looking at a news website? Is it any easier to become informed about other countries by using the internet? Do children become impatient, with shorter attention spans because of using the internet and computer games? What is the future of newspapers? Is the information distributed by a government or by a non-profit any more reliable than info in for-profit media? What changes can we expect to see in digital media? Is television news suffering in ways similar to the troubles of print media? When info is distributed only by those who care enough to write it for free, can that information be reliable, unbiased? And so on….

Use Google or another search engine to look for “21 st century media,” “decline of newspapers,” “information technology,” “world news sources,” or any similar search about the future of the media, and it becomes apparent that many thoughtful people are asking such questions. There are various books that cover such topics in depth, as well as numerous websites that spotlight the current changes and controversies. One book that I find myself turning to repeatedly, although it's not new, is “The Social Life of Information,” by Brown & Duguid. (7)

Predictions may abound, but the best sources often admit that it is very difficult to accurately predict what is going to happen in the infosphere. There is no one source of information or communication that can be relied upon everywhere in the world, all the time. All one needs to do to be sure of this fact is to travel outside the area where information is accessible by your laptop, iPad, or cell phone. We can only hope that enough people will continue to try to stay informed, and to insist upon trustworthy information.



(1) http://www.naa.org/Trends-and-Numbers/Readership/Age-and-Gender.aspx .

(2) Note that there is at least one unrelated newspaper called Press Enterprise, which serves some communities in Pennsylvania. See www.pressenterpriseonline.com .

(3) In 2008 Belo separated the newspaper segment of the company (four daily papers, The Dallas Morning News, The Providence Journal, The Press-Enterprise, and the Denton Record-Chronicle, of Denton County, Texas) into A.H. Belo Corp., with the company's television stations staying under Belo Corp. History from The Press-Enterprise, Sept. 30, 1983, B-1; www.pe.com ; and www.en.wikipedia.org. To be completely honest, I should say that I freelanced for the P-E, before Belo.

(4) Statistics derived from www.pe.com, www.ahbelo.com, wikipedia, U.S. Census Bureau, and www.infoplease.com.

(5) Based on counting articles in recent editions of The Press-Enterprise, LA Times, Seattle Times, Wall Street Journal and occasionally other newspapers. Sorry for the West Coast bias — that's where I live.

(6) McLuhan, Marshall (1964), Understanding Media, Routledge, London.

(7) Brown, John Seely, and Paul Duguid (2002), The Social Life of Information, Harvard Business School Press, Boston.


About the Writer: Laura L. Klure is an independent writer based in Riverside, California. She has written more than 900 major articles for a variety of publications, has published two books, and participated in other large local history projects. Her background includes a BA in biology and years of research work at the University of California, Riverside.

A note from Tapani Lausti: Laura Klure (then Laura Gallup) and I took part in the journalism course at the Polytechnic High School in Riverside, California in 1959-1960. We were staff members of the school newspaper Poly Spotlight. Laura was also responsible for writing most of the stories of student activities which appeared in The Press-Enterprise that year.  She was a "stringer" with The Press-Enterprise, 1990-96. Marcia Knopf McQuern, who  in 1959-60  was the news editor of the Poly Spotlight, was the editor of the The Press-Enterprise from 1987 until her retirement in 2002. 

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