Monday, April 11, 2011

Who needs newspapers? One couple’s answer

Two days after former news executive Paul Steinle retired last summer, he hitched a 31-foot mobile home to his champagne Silverado pickup to discover first-hand if newspapers have what it takes to succeed in the digital age.

Now that he has visited at least one paper in each of 37 states – with stops scheduled in the rest by July – the preliminary verdict is in.

“This is not an industry that is going to lay down and die,” said Steinle who is publishing his findings at a website called Who Needs Newspapers? “This is an articulate, smart, hard-working group of people. For at least the next decade, I see them going on.”

But not every paper will make the transition from the near-monopolistic print model to the vastly more competitive digital space, said Steinle, a broadcast journalist who led United Press International in its ebbing days and then became associate provost at Southern Oregon University, where he worked until he retired. Still, he is optimistic.

“I have been in a number of business turnarounds in my career and I don’t see newspapers as buggy whips,” said Steinle, whose partner on the quest to save the press is his wife, Sara Brown, a former human resources executive at the Los Angeles Times and The Columbian in Vancouver, WA.
Steinle reports his wife is as optimistic as he is.

“There’s an awful lot of energy going into trying new stuff,” said the 72-year-old Steinle in a telephone interview as he pulled into his home base in Ashland, OR, for a brief respite before commencing the final leg of the cross-country journey. “Some ideas will work and some won’t. Let’s hope they come up with enough ideas to make it.”

Watching the horrifying tumble in publishing revenues and readership after 2005, Steinle and Brown decided in 2009 to do something more than hope newspapers would have a future.

As Steinle’s retirement approached, the couple founded a non-profit organization called Valid Sources to identify and share “models of excellence” in publishing, as well as to make the case that newspapers matter to the civic health of individual communities and the nation as a whole.

“What’s at stake here is the local news,” he explained. “Who is going to cover the news in Medford, OR? We know someone will cover the big news, but it’s the community papers that are at risk here. In the short term, they will be OK. But the idea that they might go away is alarming, because I don’t see anything else replacing them.”

Undaunted when they could not find philanthropic support for their mission, the couple decided to hit the road on their own nickel to identify best practices in newspapers across the land. Ten months, 23,000 miles, only 10 miles to the gallon and more than $30,000 in out-of-pocket expenses later, they have posted video interviews with key leaders at one newspaper in each of 25 states. Additional reports are scheduled for publication through the fall.

Steinle said he selected what he called
transformational publications that view themselves as multimedia, multi-platform news and information services.

The first stop was the Sequoyah County Times in Sallisaw, OK, a 5,000-circulation, family-owned weekly, that – like its big-city brethren – is leveraging technology to provide more and better coverage with less expense. Other stops included the Anchorage Daily News, the Baltimore Afro-American and the Charleston (SC) Post and Courier.

There is a new operating paradigm at the 37 newspapers we have visited to date, said Steinle. The newspapers we visited this year have altered their operating practices dramatically to deliver the news to more people through more channels. Their dilemma is whether they can draw sufficient revenue from Internet advertising, digital subscriptions or digital apps to fund the quality of journalism the print model has financed for decades.

Based on the enthusiasm and passion he found at every stop, Steinle says it would be a mistake to write off newspapers.

“Just because digital comes around doesn’t mean the usefulness of the newspaper ends,” he said, citing the portability, ease of access, low cost and serendipity that you get when reading the news in print.

Most important of all, said Steinle, is that newspapers are the No. 1 source for local coverage.

“If they fail, where will people in the United States get quality information?” he said. “The people in the newspaper business care about their communities and they aren’t going to concede. They are going to keep fighting. And I think that’s a good story.”


Blogger johnflurry said...

What a great story. Ia m following this one for sure. He makes a great point. Who will tell the local stories? I would argue that a collection of local bloggers might but maybe that could be the role of the new local paper, gathering those writers.

6:33 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

It would be interesting to see local newspapers move into more of a "curator" role, vetting and sourcing information and stories from local bloggers, twitterati and Facebook, essentially providing a human-powered version of Flipbook(iPad).
I could see that having immense value. As information grows exponetially online, we will inevitably need curators choosing and delivering our content to us- essentially the role the newspapers currently play and have for ages.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Very interesting story, and he brings up a lot of great points about both the challenges newspapers are facing and the value they bring to society. Newspapers are making great efforts to adapt to the changing landscape; from trying to monetize digital space, creating apps, integrating daily deal models and trying other ways to sell print advertising space. It's good to hear a positive take on what's happening at publications throughout the US.

10:59 AM  
Blogger DANIELBLOOM said...

Great story, great post, questionL why did you write NICKEL instead oN THEIR OWN DIME, rhymes with "the couple decided to hit the road on their own nickel to identify best practices in newspapers across the land. "

6:05 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

He's got it right! I have thought of doing something similar...a very worthwhile effort. Thanks.

1:21 AM  
Blogger Kent Ford said...

I'd contribute a few bucks to this project. Gasoline isn't getting any cheaper. Good to see somebody point out the enthusiasm, creativity and knowledge rampant in newspaper offices. Where the corporate officers and stockholders haven't sucked the spirit out of the employees, great things are being done.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great article. So nice to see a positive spin on newspapers for once.

10:13 AM  

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