PENNING: Newspaper changes can feel personal

Nov 10, 2011

Finally, you know someone who lost a family member, or that family member was your own. That’s when it becomes what we call “personal.”

While certainly not as serious as death and war, watching the slow decline of the newspaper industry has parallels.

First, there are stories about the news media outlets in general struggling to retain audience in this Internet era. Then there are reports of lost advertising revenue. This is followed by noticeable differences in the size and number of pages in some national newspapers. Then some staff at a nearby newspaper are let go. Then home delivery is reduced or eliminated. Finally, the “paper” exists online only — if at all.

Such was the case with the shocking — yet what seems inevitable announcement — that a nearby newspaper, the Grand Rapids Press, will only deliver an actual paper three days a week, beginning early next year. I teach and study media, and I have watched and commented on the changes in media for several years now.

But this? The paper that I wrote for briefly as a young college graduate with a journalism degree? Going from a “daily” to delivery only three days a week?
This is personal.

I grew up in Grand Rapids. A newspaper landing on our front stoop is one of my early memories. My parents didn’t allow us to watch much television — and there were no video games, Internet, texting or other distractions young people have today. So, after doing my homework and playing while there was available daylight, I often would hang out in the living room and read the paper.

I started the habit watching my dad, a plumber, come home from work and retire to a La-Z-Boy chair, his thick gray socks sticking out over the pull-out foot rest, a copy of the paper held in the air. It would be about 20 minutes before he put it down and dozed.

I picked up the newspaper the first time out of boredom and curiosity. But soon it was a habit. I had a natural interest in what was going on in the community and the world.

As someone who loved to read, I was fascinated that you could have a job doing that for a newspaper. Journalism became my first career calling. Plumbing was never a consideration.

Since then, I’ve moved into public relations and education. But I never lost my love of a newspaper.

I’m happy to say, some of my students share that love. Not enough of them, according to conversations I have with classes, as well as national survey data about newspaper readership.

However, some of them not only read online, but love an actual paper newspaper. They love the tactile pleasure of newsprint in hand. Several even said they love the smell of a newspaper. I smiled to hear one say that a cup of coffee and a newspaper remain one of life’s simple pleasures.

But all that’s changing. The paper you are reading now still is delivered six days a week. But it is also available on computer and mobile device, in various formats. In one sense, this sounds like progress. But I also worry.

What about people who can’t afford computers or aren’t technically adept enough to read online media? What about the online environment in which we are overwhelmed with content, but nevertheless can feel less informed? Will newspapers be able to survive economically, or will they move to the Internet and then one day just cease to exist altogether as a cacophony of bloggers take over?

Perhaps I worry too much. There is much to gain from technological advances. I enjoy accessing the Tribune wherever I am around the world when I travel. The multimedia content, such as video clips and links to related content, enhance the original reporting.

The ability for readers to comment on articles, and each others’ comments, adds a whole new community feeling to a community newspaper. It actually could improve what media scholars call the “public sphere,” in which journalists report and society discusses politics and other relevant information of the day.

I don’t really think newspapers are going to die. But they are changing.

Maybe “casualties of war” is too strong a metaphor. It’s more like the feeling I imagine my friends have when their children leave the home for college or a job.

There is excitement and pride about inevitable progress and change. But there is also a nagging, nostalgic twinge in the heart about losing something special.

— By Tim Penning. His columns and other thoughts can be read on his PierPoints blog: http://pierpoints.blogspot.com.

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