I remain optimistic about the future of newspapers – should they get serious about making the necessary changes to survive – but it’s hard to ignore the avalanche of bad news.

I’ve been talking with colleagues recently about what a future without newspapers would look like. I tend to look at human society in terms of an ecosystem – maybe it’s because I grew up out in the country, on a farm, and from an early age, I watched the big things eat the little things, and how plants and animals fought for survival in all the little niches. The pine trees drop highly acidic needles that kill off the underbrush, ensuring that the trees can scarf up all the water & nutrients … which works great until the oaks come along, who survive in the acidic soil, and grow up fast, to spread out huge, thick branches the steal the sunlight from the pines, and root systems that strangle …

Anyway, in our societal ecosystem, the press fills a vital niche. It’s how citizens learn about what’s happening in their community, without having to rely on gossip, or what Central Americans refer to as “Radio Bemba.” In the stable ecosystem we all grew up with, papers/TV/radio filled that niche; they were the middlemen in the big information exchange, wherein we found out who had gotten arrested for DUI, which school board was thinking about finally fixing the leaky roof on the gym, and where the best deals on new & used cars could be found.

We need some means by which to pass information around; to find out what just happened, and to perhaps argue amongst ourselves if it really happened the way “they” say, or if there is some other interpretation of events. We have always needed this. We always will.

Well, comes now the case of the Winslow Mail. A humble little weekly, dozing in a moribund town (pop. 10,500) that is only slightly famous for a line from an Eagles song. So check out this article in the Arizona Republic about the death of the paper, and what’s happening in the community in the aftermath…

The article focuses in on how a “cynical” reporter came into this small town and wrote articles that so turned off the local that they just stopped reading the paper, the advertisers stopped buying space in the paper, and it keeled over and died. All that’s left now is a tissue-thin ad circular called “The Reminder,” whose name may be seen as some kind of meta-jest at the expense of the paper that it’s replaced – although I rather think that kind of humor would be rare indeed in the publishing industry these days.

The article comes off as fairly judgmental about how the reporter so pissed off the good townspeople that the paper croaked. I’m not sure how much to buy into that theory; although a lot of Deep Media Thinkers are pointing fingers at the newsroom for the problems in the industry. “It’s the content, stupid!” they chide, pointing to how newspapers and their editorial staffs have become ever-more-removed from the people that they cover, which is why readers are no longer reading.

That path usually leads to lots of garish color, short & fluffy articles and big graphics “packaging” in an attempt to dumb down the news content to the point that the (*allegedly*) mouth-breathing masses find it digestible again. You know. The Gannett way.

I am willing to concede that some of the problems with U.S. newspapers are the fault of the editorial side; that we are, quite simply, producing news stories that nobody wants to read. I’ve run into that a few times on my own consulting work. The conviction that what newspapers are doing is so essential that the people can’t possible live without it; that the Big Important Stories have to be run in 160-column-inch (trophy-bait?) multi-page spreads, and that people should be forced to read them. For their own good. Dammit.

Newspaper journalism as cod-liver oil
. Tastes like shit, but it’s good for you. Find the flaw in that marketing plan, eh?

But getting back to Winslow, since the paper died, there are a bunch of small start-ups, shoppers, and of course, word of mouth all attempting to fill the gaping hole left when the paper died.

In ecological terms – a massive, destructive fire swept through the ecosystem and exterminated all life. What’s left now are a few struggling shoots trying to spring up and grow to replace what’s been lost.

Although a broadsheet known as the Pioneer has moved in to try to fill the void, the weekly has yet to capture much of an audience. It has only 300 subscribers.

“It’s a sad thing when you lose a newspaper,” says Docia Blalock, town librarian. “It’s like losing an old friend. . . . We’ve lost that intimacy. What we have left is the rumor mill.”

I know that this is going to make a lot of journalists, who are prone to the Messiah Complex, feel very much like gathering together scraps of lumber in the parking lot so they can crucify themselves (and then won’t the readers be sorry – you’ll miss us when we’re gone! You bastards!).

This is dangerous thinking. The thing about ecosystems and Mother Nature Abhorring A Vacuum is that when a spot opens up, other critters rush to fill it. What I’m hoping will happen is that instead of having to go back to square one, where the media landscape is bulldozed, torched, sterilized & nuked, the newspapers can evolve to survive in the new ambient conditions.

From that point of view, Winslow suddenly becomes very, very interesting. I tend to look at small/mid-size towns as interesting labs where the future of media is getting invented, far away from the chaos of major media centers. So if we want to try to envision what will happen should a massive media redwood such as the LA Times (or the Tribune Co.) come crashing down, what happens in the next couple of years in Winslow might give us a few clues.

Meanwhile, the Republic seems stuck on the idea that as newspapers die, the communities will wither away without them:

In that sense, the Mail’s fate is an object lesson for publishers who must balance journalism ideals with economic realities.

Steffens says that even an established newspaper can fail if it
alienates customers. The result is an information vacuum: Advertisers
no longer have a trusted forum where they can sell products or
services; citizens lose a sentinel for the public interest.

“Who watches what the town hall or the school board or the hospital
board is doing?” he asks. “Where does the accountability come from? How
does a community know without a newspaper?”

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