A death in the family: How “our newspaper” became “the newspaper”

We like it when you refer to the News & Record as “our newspaper.” We want the paper to represent you and reflect your values.

That was how I started a column back in 2009. But in my mind, I knew I was speaking to a lost generation. The idea of “our newspaper” — suggesting a sense of ownership, a partnership, endearment even — is mostly a relic. Oh, in the days of “Yes, Virginia” and the New York Sun — “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” — the local newspaper was a part of the family. In fact, the News & Record still gets letters referring to “my newspaper” and “our newspaper.” But now, more often, the personal pronoun is replaced with the article “the.” (And occasionally followed by “the” and an expletive.)

Yesterday, when I wrote of my continued personal connection with the newspaper, Jay Rosen suggested my next post: on: “Now if we could only figure out when (for the readers) “our newspaper” became “the” newspaper… When and how… Exactly how.”

It would be easy to say that the sense of community of Facebook and Twitter has displaced that of the daily newspaper, but the erosion of the paper’s stranglehold on “our” began long before that. It began with television news in the 60s and 70s. Newscasters were “real,” cute, and seemed nice and friendly. They chatted with you and their colleagues. You felt you knew them in the same way that you just know that, say, Sandra Bullock or Reese Witherspoon are nice based on their movie roles. People started having choices of where, how and when they got their news. They began abandoning their papers.

And newspapers began abandoning them. In the 80s, afternoon newspapers began dying. The sense of allegiance to the afternoon paper didn’t transfer to the morning paper. When the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to L.A., did Dodger fans become Yankee fans? Not on your life. Where there was competition, there was now consolidation. Fewer papers were owned by someone who lived in town. Editors and publishers came from corporate. Reporters came from out of town.

The erosion continued.

It wasn’t all external forces. Newspapers hurt themselves. They began charging for obituaries. (The paper wants to make money from a death in my family? Who does that? Not a friend) Newspapers developed attitude. Snark was in; folksy was out. People called to do business with the paper and heard this: “Your call is very important to us. Please hold for the next customer service representative.” That’s not how you talk to family.

And even though circulation penetration was slipping, profits were higher than ever.  Newspapers got arrogant and couldn’t see or wouldn’t see what was going on around them. What, me worry?

Society became more transient. Fewer adults lived in the communities in which they were reared, and they didn’t have the same link with the local newspaper. Tie that in with the “bowling alone” phenomenon, and community connections were severing everywhere. At about the same time, the nation began dividing itself into Tim Russert’s red states and blue states. People became alienated by newspapers with strong editorial stances — liberal or conservative. (It wasn’t helped by FoxNews’ constant refrain that newspapers were liberally biased.) For instance, the News & Record’s editorial board tends to support Democrats. Voters in the city of Greensboro do, too. But outside of Greensboro, where the newspaper has sizable circulation, the populace is much more conservative. People were bound to feel as if the paper wasn’t theirs, wasn’t “of” them and certainly wasn’t “for” them. I believe that’s true of most newspapers that circulate in a large area. (I know it is of the four largest papers in North Carolina.)

Meanwhile, journalists, having helped take down a president, rediscovered their investigative gene, which was good and proper. Unfortunately, in many cases, the emphasis on watchdog journalism displaced the community content. Neighborhood  news — that feel-good steak-and-potatoes meal that newspapers lived on for much of their history — became the equivalent of brussels sprouts, relegated to inside pages and special zoned sections. Papers wrote about bad government, but weren’t telling me what my neighbors were doing or who had been promoted or what the house down the street sold for.

The internet sealed the deal. More choices of information, of connection and of community. It became “our newspaper.” My Facebook friends and Twitter followers are communities that feel as strong as my physical community. They are friends and they’re fun, and their engagement is safe. Compare comments on Facebook with those on the typical newspaper site.

Fifteen years ago, the News & Record hired a consultant to test people’s emotional response to the newspaper. He came back with this conclusion: The plurality of your readers is that they “love to hate you.” We were aghast. We tried a number of strategies to change that feeling. I don’t know that any worked — we never had the consultant back — but I doubt they did. The clock was not to be turned back.

But that’s OK. No sense in mourning something something that’s history anyway. Newspapers — new organizations, actually — can take many steps to make people feel a sense of ownership and partnership in their journalism. Some are already doing it. But that’s another post.

Tuesday update: Jack Lail joins in at his blog in Knoxville.

27 thoughts on “A death in the family: How “our newspaper” became “the newspaper”

  1. Nice piece, John, and an important question by Jay. The problem here is our unwillingness to HONESTLY look at ourselves. Trust in the press began to degrade in the mid 1970s, and we refuse to even consider that Watergate may have played a role. I think it did, because newspapers slowly transformed into vehicles of self-promotion with that and lost their sense of speaking on behalf of anyone other than themselves. Parochial journalism gave way to brand-building via Metropolitan journalism, and with it went any sense of ownership the public might have felt. This is a complex, multi-faceted question, but we do nothing but chase our tails without a truthful searching of the mirror.

  2. Agree completely. I had written a section about our obsession with capital J journalism made us arrogant and dismissive of readers and our own cities, but a cut it to the two sentences because it went on too long.

  3. I remember when I first started thinking seriously about this. It was at a meeting of editors from the Knight-Ridder chain in the mid-90s. They were being urged to think up ways their staff could become more engaged in the communities they were supposed to be serving, and I asked an innocent question: do you pay reporters enough to own a home here? After all, home ownership is strongly related to community involvement and stakeholding.

    The reply… “Generally speaking, no.” And of course there were no plans to change that. The reporters, therefore, were people passing through on their way to bigger markets. If you wanted to stay, you either became an editor or went into PR. And PR did pay enough to own a home.

    A related factor is: what is the style of reporting you want to be doing if you are just passing through on your way to some place more cosmopolitan? If you see your performance in Anytown, USA as an extended audition for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune or the Washington Post, then you will try to do Inquirer journalism in Greensboro. But maybe that’s not what Greensboro needs. In any case, you can see how this could lead to homogenization.

    Third factor: the prize culture, which orients journalists to professional peers and a national culture rather than the users in the town where they are doing their work.

    • There is some of that pass-through-on-my-way-to-the-big-city, but not as much as you might think. On a paper the size of Greensboro, there are many hands who have made Greensboro home. But generally speaking, I think you’re right.

      I would disagree with your third factor. My experience is that on papers the size of Greensboro and smaller, the prize culture doesn’t have much effect. We didn’t pursue prize journalism specifically, and I don’t know many papers our size and smaller that did. Larger than us, yes, absolutely.

  4. Excellent post, John, and I’m bookmarking your blog. But to your point: After 30 years as a daily newspaper journalist, (I’m in recovery now, in academia) I’d say a community newspaper is still “our” paper to many people who live in, and feel a part of, that community. We may be paying too much attention to whether that newspaper is delivered via a thud in the driveway or online.
    One huge piece of the problem is financial: Advertiser habits have changed, and the lack of revenue is forcing newspaper companies to eat their seed corn.
    But today’s media landscape is so splintered that even a smaller, weaker daily newspaper still commands a much, much larger proportion of a community’s attention than other media outlets, bloglets, websites, etc. Add to that the fact of the heft of the boomer generation – many of whose members still prefer print – and there’s good reason to believe a community newspaper will survive for several decades.
    Oh, and one more thing: “Our” newspaper became “the” newspaper in the South when “our” newspaper supported integration and/or busing and the community did not agree. But “love to hate us” is better than “not giving a hoot” about us.

  5. John:
    I appreciate your very thoughtful post on the evolution of newspapers. I have been avid newspaper consumer for over 40 years and have seldom missed reading the daily newspaper. The changes that have fundamentally altered the contract between the Community and it’s newspaper over the last 20 or so years have been a source of bemusement and disappointment to me.

    In recent years, one change that seems to me to be particularly disappointing is: as mid-market newspapers, like The News and Record, have downsized they no longer cover the rich milieu of local politics with any real depth. I have, for the most part, found the reporters I have encountered in Greensboro, to be bright, creative men and women who were working very hard to write accurate and engaging story. However, no matter how well written a story is – without some common understanding of the context in which the event occurred the story looses important parts of its narrative and the community dialogue suffers.

  6. Excellent post, John. I worked at the Des Moines Register when it was “our newspaper” for all of Iowa, even for people who had a second “our newspaper” in their local community. We did outstanding investigative work that was in “our” interest. We invested in agricultural coverage that mattered to our state and that no one else could or would provide. We delivered the paper in every county in Iowa, provided election coverage in every county in Iowa and sent our reporters to cover big news and heartwarming and tearjerking and kneeslapping stories from every county in Iowa. And everywhere we went, even people who disagreed with our liberal editorial stance welcomed (or at least respected) Register reporters and photojournalists who came to tell those stories.

    You’ve correctly identified many of the symptoms and causes. Some of the changes and causes were beyond the control of newspapers, but many were self-inflicted (you really nailed the obituaries and recorded telephone greetings).

    Thanks for starting this blog and for remaining such an important voice in journalism.

  7. Nice piece, John… and applicable to other businesses. Fwd’d to the editor of the online / print weekly that hosts my freelance column.

    It isn’t too late for “old school” newspapers to listen, adapt, learn & morph into something that serves both their long-time readers and generations of new ones.

    They can start right now. Will they?

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  9. Well said. As a daily newspaper reporter in Paterson, NJ, Hartford and Detroit for 22 years (who once nearly went to work in Greensboro), my experience mirrors yours. Some of the industry’s woes are self-inflicted, but not even the smartest and most forward-thinking publishers, editors and reporters could save newspapers from decline in the face of such big waves as a more mobile population, decline of public schools, struggling community institutions of all kinds (bowling alone, as you note) and the arrival of the Internet with its targeted advertising, flood of content and virtual communities. It’s creative destruction, and your last graf had it right–let’s not mourn newspapers or even save them, but instead find ways to perform their most important functions even better in what looks to me (mostly) like a new and thrilling media landscape.

  10. This is all very true. But even if newspaper had it all done right, their time as print-on-paper product would still be over with the emergence of the internet.

  11. John, the mainstream media became slanted to the left long before there was a Fox News. I quit trusting it in 1994, when during the debate over the crime bill that led to the ugly gun ban, CBS showed a fully-automatic rifle being fired while talking about semiautomatic rifles – and refused to issue a correction. Nobody else in the media called them on it, either. That’s when I realized they had a specific political agenda to push, and the will and platform to push it.

    This was not limited to the TV media, either; newspapers had been slanted for years. Have you read Professor Tim Groseclose’s book, Left Turns? In it, he conclusively demonstrates that not only is the mainstream media slanted to the left, but also that that slant is distorting the national political discourse.

    First talk radio, and now the Internet, are disintermediating the news and telling the stories that the mainstream media wouldn’t. Would Fast and Furious have ever come to light if it had not been for Fox News? Even though it’s serious enough that it may become Obama’s Watergate?

    The mainstream media has lost the trust of the American public. To get it back, it needs to become truly impartial, truly objective, and serve only the truth no matter where it leads. The newspapers of the 1950s did that. The newspapers of today don’t.

    • Thanks, Jay. I didn’t intend this post to be directly about media bias, but since you raised it…saying the mainstream media has a left-wing bias paints with a broad brush. I would say there are many, many holes in that argument.

      But more to the point, I don’t believe any newspaper can be truly impartial or truly objective. Not now and certainly not in the fifties.

      • Perhaps you’re right. However, since we’re talking about the decline of the newspaper in the eyes of the public, perception matters, and the media was seen as much more impartial then than it is now. That perception cannot have done anything but harm it.

        The transition from “we” to “they” is much more easily made when “they” are seen as obvious partisans of another political viewpoint that differs from what is seen as the common one.

        As you point out, there are indeed other causes. I can’t speak to those as well as you have; it seems to me you’ve largely hit them on the head.

        I believe that the answer is multifold: make the transition from ink on paper to electronic delivery in a way that’s not seen as too expensive for the value received; become, and be seen as becoming, truly impartial, at least as much as humanly possible; understand and accept that people consume news at all hours and want timely updates; and above all, be people, not reporters. Think for a moment about the people that make the stories you report on and try not to hurt them.

        There’s a line in one of Tom Clancy’s novels about a TV reporter being taken to visit a convenience store run by an immigrant family. One son asks him, “Why should I talk to you? You’re a _reporter_!” The guy in the story was deeply wounded and ashamed by the question and the accusatory tone.

        How many real world reporters would be, these days?

  12. I absolutely agree with the insights related to ownership – if the literal ownership of the newspaper rests in a corporate office several states away, decisions are made there that undermine the local readers’ sense of ownership. We’ve certainly seen that in the Ann Arbor community, in a dramatic way. And when a business model relies on hiring young, cheap labor, it’s not surprising when those reporters produce articles that sensationalize reality. It serves the purpose of their bosses, who are interested in site traffic, as well as the young reporters’ own goals of creating a portfolio that will help them land a job in a larger market. If someone from the Chicago Tribune is interviewing reporters, do they ask about that person’s connection to the community where they previously worked? Fundamentally, it’s not an attribute that’s been valued by the profession of journalism in recent decades, and we’re now seeing the fallout.

  13. Great article.

    Being a lot younger than most people commenting, for me the Newspaper in my town was never “our” newspaper. The newspaper in my town was mostly APR reprints with the local stuff relegated to the inside. Even the editorials were often syndicated national pieces. When I first went off to college (in 1999), I was a subscriber to my local paper, but by the time I graduated I had dropped my subscription because I no longer needed it.
    It wasn’t offering me anything that half a dozen other online papers could give me. And even online there was no value in reading my local paper over some other national paper. It was really a competition thing. As long as I had no other choices, the poor quality news they were giving me was good enough. But as soon as they had to compete with papers outside of my area, they failed. By giving me no added value, they lost my attention.

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  15. One big part of the problem is that, at some point, newspapers started doing a lot less listening. When I started 20 years of newspaper work in the mid-1970s, it was common for people to walk in the door of our storefront daily (town of 10,000) and try to strike up a conversation. Even when I was on deadline, I tried to be polite and give them a minute or a promise to get back to them. You learned a lot that way. Sure, this kind of accessibility sometimes attracted a kook or two, but we learned ways to deal with them too. A few years later, as I began working at larger dailies, I started seeing the trend toward newsroom phones that were rarely answered; some of my fellow editors, much to my chagrin, actually encouraged us to screen all calls via voicemail. Fast forward to the ’00s and I was teaching journalism and doing research that showed newspapers were having problems dealing with the flood of email new technology created. I have no grand solutions except to note that journalists today need to learn that, when it comes to interaction with readers, they’ve got to separate the wheat from the chaff, just as they do in weighing facts they write about. It’s what separates the trained pros from the citizen journalists, many of who mean well (and often do good journalism). Listen more and I think journalism will be the better for it.

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