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Can important news really survive the end of the newspaper?

Sep 7, 2016

This may strike you as silly, but a little, relatively insignificant thing happened today that put a lump in my throat.

It has to do with The Newspaper Association of America, the group that has represented major newspaper publishers since Grover Cleveland was in the White House.

I was never part of that group, which is mainly for newspaper owners, not ink-stained writers and editors, my tribe back in the day. We moaned and complained about publishers, often because we saw them as skinflints who wouldn’t pay us what we thought we were worth.

But we secretly knew publishers were necessary, and nobody even 20 years ago thought there might be a time in which newspapers no longer existed.

Well, that was then and this is now, and today the Newspaper Association of America officially changes its name to the News Media Alliance. If you think that’s because conventional newspapers are dying, you are mostly right. But not completely.

In a story published Monday, David Chavern, the head of the newly renamed alliance, told the New York Times that the word “newspaper” was becoming meaningless when it comes to many traditional news organizations, including the Times itself.

While they still publish newspapers, larger and larger percentages of their readers – and viewers – see their work online. In fact, more people than ever are seeing newspaper company products.

Analyzing all this, the Times attempted to cast these developments with a positive spin, headlining their article, Yes, the news can survive the newspaper.

But I’m not so sure.

Yes, we’ll get tons of Kardashian “news,” and major cataclysmic events will still go on being covered.

But what about traditional, important news?

Who will give Grand Rapidians the information they need to know about a potential new zoning-busting development in their city?

Who will keep an eye on the officials in Chelsea and Dexter?

Will anyone know if there is a horrendous financial scandal in Flushing?

You know the answer. And for all the talk that “dead tree” newspapers are obsolete technology, everyone in the industry still gets most of their revenue from ads in printed newspapers.

Those ads have been declining, as has printed newspaper circulation, but nobody has yet figured out how to make digital ads nearly as profitable.

And as the Times story notes, the “newspaper” of the future,

“... will most likely have to do so with fewer resources and a smaller classically trained reporting staff. That means letting some stories go uncovered.”

Yet, which ones?

Many of the most important stories don’t come wrapped in a bow proclaiming their importance. If the ability to generate clicks is the standard, then anything resembling democracy is probably doomed.

I realize that I am of another generation, who still remembers the thrill of seeing my first byline in print, but yesterday, someone brought into my office a few yellowing newspapers from 1975.

They were physically larger than today’s papers, filled with boring black and while pictures, and a cascade of fascinating and important stories on all manner of subjects someone scrolling down an online list never sees.

That paper went out of business long ago.

I have no idea if its readers know what they lost. And I’m not at all sure we know what we are going to lose.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.