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Newspapers are in trouble, and so are we

Jan 27, 2017

I’m in Grand Rapids today, at the annual convention of the Michigan Press Association, which represents daily and weekly newspapers throughout the state. It is largely a happy event.

Those gathered celebrate and award prizes to some of the best journalism in the state. This year’s top winner was an investigation in which the Detroit News revealed that dirty surgical equipment was being used in operating rooms at a major hospital.

Old friends reconnect here, as they do at all conventions, and a certain amount of alcohol may or may not be drunk.

I had the privilege of being there with Addie Wallace, one of our star Wayne State journalism students, who won a scholarship, as did other fine students from around the state.

Yet the profession they are thinking about entering is in serious trouble. Newspaper jobs across America declined by a whopping 40 percent between 1994 and 2014, and have fallen further still since.

Newspaper circulation is barely half of what it was half a century ago, when the population was considerably smaller.

The Detroit News, which had 670,000 print subscribers thirty years ago, has fewer than 50,000 today.

What’s worse from a revenue standpoint is that not only has traditional print advertising been in freefall, digital or online advertising in American newspapers has also been falling slightly, according to industry figures and the Pew Research Center.

As a result, many newspapers have died altogether and others are a mere shadow of their former selves.

Many people aren’t the least concerned, and might regard this essay as an irrelevant flight of nostalgia for obsolete technology. After all, doesn’t everyone get news online now, often on their phones?

Why, yes they do. But most of the news they get, especially news with any depth, is taken from newspapers, the very medium the internet has been inadvertently working to kill.

Yes, you can get wonderful disaster photos from a kid on the scene with a smart phone. But you need trained journalists to not only find out inconvenient truths but explain how complex issues and proposed policy changes will affect you.

The new administration in Washington is proposing some of the most radical changes we’ve seen in our lifetimes, in everything from health care to trade policy.

Try figuring out what this would mean to you and your family from bulletins on your cell phone. Michigan Radio does an amazing job, especially if you access the resources on our website.

But we can’t cover everything, or hold the city council in Holly or Holland responsible every week. Virtually all internet news is collected from traditional news sources, mostly newspapers.

If they all die, you’ll be able to find a lot of pictures of Donald Trump and Jennifer Aniston. I don’t know, frankly, how to save newspapers. The model for some may be what happened with the Washington Post, which was bought by Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos who has been pouring money into it and making it better.

What I do know is that real democracy is probably impossible without newspapers. You have a few thousand people in this state who are working long hours for lousy salaries in insecure jobs to bring you information you need.

I think they deserve admiration, and respect.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior 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.