News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 7, 2013

MAX JONES: The American Newspaper: Changing? Yes. Dying? No way!

Max Jones
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — It happened again this past January when all those “looking at the year ahead” stories started popping up on Internet “news” websites and broadcast “news” programs.

Under a provocative headline reading something like “Five industries/businesses doomed to tank in the coming year,” there it was, a prediction based on an unsubstantiated “expert” analysis that the newspaper industry will continue in 2013 to suffer its slide into oblivion.

Having been in this industry for almost 38 years and planning to happily remain a few years more, you’d think such headlines would make me tremble.

They don’t. I do grumble a bit about these stories, primarily about their sources. But having watched the evolution of newspapers the past four decades, I know this gloomy, oft-repeated analysis is based on a lazy assumption. The Internet, so they say, rules the media world and is making other content-delivery systems irrelevant.

Digital media (including websites and social media such as Facebook and Twitter) have certainly changed the dynamic of information consumption. While print products are no longer the only method of delivery, they remain the primary method for community newspapers such as the Tribune-Star.

In fact, if some of those digital or broadcast naysayers were to actually do their homework and study reliable national studies, they would know better. We would recommend a quick review of a recent survey conducted in U.S. communities by the research arm of the University of Missouri School of Journalism for the National Newspaper Association. (You can see the summary for yourself at www.nnaweb.org.)

Among its findings:

n 92 percent say their local newspaper is informative.

n 83 percent say they and their families rely on newspapers for local news and information.

n 96 percent of readers pay for their newspaper.

n Every newspaper has 2.18 readers.

n 49 percent of those with Internet access say they never read local news online.

n By a 3-1 margin, respondents prefer their newspaper to TV for local news.



There is plenty more, but you get the idea. Sound like an irrelevant industry to you? Not to me.

I would also point out that really smart business people with strong track records are not buying into the Internet-fueled hype that newspapers are irrelevant. Perhaps the most noteworthy example is none other than Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett, the savvy investor reputed to be the second-richest man in America (behind Microsoft’s Bill Gates).

Buffett in the past two years has purchased a number of community newspapers, including his hometown Omaha World, the 63-paper Media General chain, and most recently the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., and the Tulsa World in Oklahoma.

It’s not Buffett’s practice to throw money down dry holes, so his investments provide an intriguing alternative view to those predicting a newspaper apocalypse.

Take a look at this excerpt from Buffett’s recent report to his stockholders:

“Newspapers continue to reign supreme … in the delivery of local news. If you want to know what’s going on in your town — whether the news is about the mayor or taxes or high school football — there is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job. … Wherever there is a pervasive sense of community, a paper that serves the special informational needs of that community will remain indispensable to a significant portion of its residents.”

In general, the newspaper industry has struggled to adapt to changes brought about by the Internet and the rise of digital media. It has done some things wrong. It has also done some things right. While it has been somewhat slow to adjust, it is making strides and beginning to hit its stride. Buffett’s bullishness on newspapers would seem to support this.

I often encounter loyal newspaper readers in Terre Haute and around the Wabash Valley who are worried that their community newspaper is destined to disappear. That bothers me, because I know better. Newspapers are changing. That much is true. And that change will eventually make them stronger. But their demise is not part of the future, at least not one I can see.

Noted novelist and newspaperman Mark Twain might have put it this way. Reports about the death of the American newspaper have been greatly exaggerated.



Max Jones can be reached at 812-231-4336, or by email at max.jones@tribstar.com. Follow him on Twitter, @TribStarMax.