Joe Laliberte: Stop the presses: Saving journalism

If you are reading these words, you are one of two breeds. You are either grasping one of those decaying historical artifacts called a newspaper, which tend to include creases, smudges and uninformed writers such as myself, or else you’re reading the online version of our newspaper.

If you are the former, you are standing strong against those who aim to take away the newspaper through lay-offs, buy-outs or by moving their articles from the grip of your hands to the ends of your fingertips. Whether it is because of an adherence to a public good or because you just can’t manage to bring the laptop into the bathroom, your cause is just. If you are the latter, some in the print news industry view you as a free loader who is responsible for the demise of the newspaper. To them, you are destroying newspapers with every click of the mouse.

Can there be a happy medium between print and online versions of newspapers? Can those who get their newspaper in an e-mail ever read in harmony with those who get their news in a mailbox?

Though our generation is more likely to get news online, newspapers are still important because they generally set the direction of the news for the day. Blogs and cable news still get a bulk of their story ideas from newspapers. In local communities and smaller towns, they usually provide the only form of news and consequently the only check on local governments. Media is called the fourth branch of government for a good reason and newspapers still consistently provide the best coverage in media.

The situation for print newspapers is dire as they are at the verge of extinction. A newspaper older than its home state of Colorado, The Rocky Mountain News, published its last issue at the end of February. The Seattle Post Intelligencer slashed its staff from 165 to 20 and was forced to move to an online format. The Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Minneapolis Star Tribune and Philadelphia Inquirer are all in bankruptcy. Even the venerable New York Times and The Washington Post are not immune from financial trouble.

The reason print newspapers are shutting down is because ad revenue, the true cash crop of newspapers that has allowed them to operate for the last century, declined by 23 percent over the last two years. Even online ad revenue is declining, with the Web still producing only ten percent of the industry’s revenue, according to The Project For Excellence in Journalism. Newspapers simply don’t have a model to make money by putting their content online for free.

The new model must involve making newspapers interactive through a hybrid online and print version. The generation that grew up with Napster is not about to start paying for simple articles that newspapers throw on the Internet. Online newspapers could become personal, with front pages that help identify the news people would like. In the same way that the Web site Pandora selects and identifies musical preferences, online newspapers could develop a system that lets you develop your own front page.

People would pay for online content that has more video, interactive multimedia graphs and links to original documents. A modest online subscription could also provide greater access to the journalists and editors, more in-depth articles and special reports. The best, most interactive news must be put behind a pay wall on the Web. The Internet can also provide online communities and social networking capacities that the print edition just can’t do.

Unfortunately news is not free. Even at GW, Student Academic and Support Services pays upward of $45,000 to put newspapers in the dorms, and The Hatchet is free of charge because of the numerous ads placed in the pages of the print version.

Publishers need to look at the Web as a tool for better storytelling. Once they do this, they can make money by drawing advertisers both to the Web site and the print version.

Innovative Web sites such as VoiceofSanDiego.org and GlobalPost.com are already pushing a new model of online journalism. Until newspapers discover this new model, we will be stuck in a dangerous limbo pattern where there is no shortage of news, just a shortage of journalists with paying jobs to cover it.

The writer, a senior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet columnist.

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