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.

That “darned” paper

Every day, newspapers do things readers don’t like. Every newspaper worth a damn upsets its readers. That’s one thing that makes the news media unique — part of its mission is to make people mad.

Of course, that only counts when you’ve done something courageous, publishing a story, photo or opinion that had to be published for an informed citizenry. Angering readers when you’ve done something for other reasons — financial or political — that’s a different story.

When I was at the News & Record, we narrowed the size of the paper to save on newsprint costs. We didn’t change the type size because we wanted the paper to remain legible. Most readers liked it because it made the paper easier to handle at the breakfast counter. But one reader of the sports section didn’t seem to care for it. It was taken from a voicemail, and the beginning is a bit hard to hear, but it gets clearer. (Warning: it contains some profanity which is tame for newsrooms but may not be where you are. The caller does have a nice Southern accent, though.)

A reader’s phone message. NSFW