Former editors air views as readers defect

By J B Leftwich for The Lebanon Democrat

Loss of readership, which translates into loss of circulation and significant loss of revenue, is haunting newspapers throughout this nation and prompting an agonized soul-search to determine the cause.

Of the 20 top newspapers, 15 showed loss of circulation during the six months ending March 31. These included the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.

The worst percentage losses hit the San Francisco Chronicle, with a 15.6 percent decline, the Boston Globe, 8.5 percent, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 6.7 percent.

Newspaper readers have strong opinions about these losses, citing competition from radio and television, and from internet news sources. I, too, have opinions, but I turned to four of my former editors at Castle Heights who built solid reputations in professional journalism. They see a range of factors.

Jim Fall, former editor and publisher of Missouri and Arkansas newspapers, who recently retired after 10 years as executive director of the Montana Press Association, takes an optimistic view.

I suspect a great deal of those circulations are very closely “managed.”. And by that I mean they pull in their circulation territory because it becomes “too expensive” and so the totals diminish. Cross-ownership of suburban newspapers makes a great deal of difference, too. The major daily also owns the surrounding suburban newspapers and manages its circulation accordingly — letting the smaller suburbans operate in their neighborhoods without major “competition” from from big brother.

I strongly believe that the newspaper business is as strong as ever. Local news is what makes the whole cycle work, and nobody provides local news but the local newspaper — and without them the whole news network crumbles, from the AP to all the local radio and TV stations. Who covers the Lebanon city council and the Wilson County commissioners? Certainly not Gannett’s people from Nashville (but they pick it up, and send it to USA Today.)

Stan Huguenin, a retired editor living in Florida, is pessimistic: As we older folks pass, readership continues going down. The daily death rate of WWII vets is pretty high, and once you get past individuals born in the early to mid-80s, you find a high percentage of folk -- they'd be about 20 -- who have little to do with newspapers. In fact, I'm not sure anyone under 30 has much to do with them. I'm encouraged at the overall circulation of USA Today. Its short, concise colorful, appealing stories and layout are attractions -- plus the national sports coverage.

Jim Jewell, a native of Lebanon, a retired Navy officer and former newspaper editor states: I believe this is an indication of the changing world and newspapers, by and large, being unwilling to change with it.. I don’t think many of them understand the changes and the need for changing themselves. I think newspapers should assess their unique capabilities in light of the bang, bang electronic media revolution and devise a strategy to meet the public’s needs in such a changing environment. I also believe this decline would have been greatly minimized had most newspapers practiced good journalism, as we were taught, and shied away from sensationalism, editorializing on the front page, and other practices that “trick” the reader into reading an article or into buying the newspaper.

David Hall, a native of Lebanon, and a retired editor of three metropolitan dailies, including the Cleveland Pain Dealer, writes: These circulation declines are of serious concern. Newspapers are going through a cycle of change as the Internet and other information sources compete successfully. My thoughts:
* If you can't cut it in a competitive market, then you either change or suffer. Newspapers are suffering, although I think the emphasis on the Top 20 is misplaced. Many smaller newspapers are prospering, especially those centered on concentrations adjacent to urban areas.
* The list of the Top 20 shows that some newspapers paying close attention to news have prospered, although the anomaly is The Washington Post, one of our finest newspapers.
* When all is said, however, we should remember this: you can't go wrong putting news in the newspaper and staying close to your readers.

The radio changed newspapers, television changed newspapers, and the digital revolution is changing newspapers. We are witnessing change. My view is newspapers will bottom out when they emphasize quality over a net cast for all fish. Learn who your readers are and edit to serve them. Forget the nonreaders: they don't read. Learning involves more than market research and requires editors who understand their communities and the primacy of news, not chasing moonbeams.

Newspapers facing waning circulation

By J B Leftwich for The Lebanon Democrat

Each morning during the Cumberland University baseball team’s run for the NAI A national championship, I turned to the Nashville newspaper’s sports pages to check results and to read a possible story.

Each morning I was disappointed. The sports pages during the tournament carried no stories about the Cumberland team. Most of my information came from this newspaper and from the Internet.

And that makes a point. Metropolitan newspapers, faced with hundreds of stories and columns, must make choices. Too often, the choice is to run national stories and reject suburban news. It was not always thus.

For more than four decades, I was a “state correspondent” for The Tennessean. My beat was Wilson County. During many of those years, I would average a local story per day. Now, days can pass with no story bearing a Lebanon or Mount Juliet dateline.

And that brings us to a salient point. As metropolitan newspapers throughout this country report decline in circulation, newspapers such as this one, which focus on local news, thrive. Except for an occasional feature and for spot news in the Nashville paper, the local newspapers are where we find local news.

An illustration of the growth of local newspapers is The Herald of Arlington Heights in northwest Chicago. As the area has grown in population and economically so has The Herald, now the third largest paper in Illinois.

But just last month, The Washington Post, regarded by many as one of the best in the nation, reduced its newsroom staff by about 70 and its production staff by about 100, all believed to be a consequence of falling circulation. Illustrating this plight, the Post’s daily circulation in 1993 was 832,232. In 2006, it was reported as 690,700.

In recent decades, television news is deemed a root cause of falling newspaper circulation. But viewers of national TV news also reportedly have dwindled in this new century. More news sources, including burgeoning internet news, have resulted in smaller numbers of newspaper readers and TV viewers.

I do not pose as an expert in such matters, only as a long-time observer and as a journalist and newspaper enthusiast since high school in the mid-Thirties. Here are some of my observations and opinions:

Bias in news stories

This is not to be confused with editorial position. Newspapers are entitled to their opinions, traditionally expressed on editorial pages. But in today’s newspapers, editorializing frequently – and often blatantly -- appears in news stories.

Long, redundant news stories.

In my early years reporting for The Tennessean, I was a “stringer,” meaning I clipped and pasted into a string all I wrote during a month. I was paid by the inch, and I learned to overwrite.

The principle, not the rate of pay, has been perpetuated. Most reporters, including in this newspaper, overwrite their stories. They quote a source then paraphrase the quote They forget that many subscribers of morning papers read as they gulp coffee and reach for ignition keys. Really, how many readers read the continuations on the jump pages?

Subjective lead paragraphs.

It is fashionable in new stories to write four paragraphs of fluff before addressing the thrust of the subject.

If an atomic bomb hits Kansas City, we do not need to know in the first paragraph that Mrs. Brown can’t find her cat.

The absence of “why”.

Of the five Ws, “why” is the neglected element. Readers often are left guessing. Police arrested a Metro councilman for gambling in a high-stakes poker game. Why? At what level does poker become illegal? The news story did not explain.

Celebrity News.

Most readers enjoy reading about celebrities, but many newspapers overkill to sate readers’ appetites. The death of a remote banjo player commands extended coverage. An obit of a distinguished educator with notable achievements appears only in the paid obituaries.

Local news.

“Local” is circulation area. If The Tennessean is circulated in Cookeville, there should be Cookeville and Putnam County stories in its pages. Local news is the reason the small town newspapers thrive

Through a succession of editors – Dixon Merritt, Bill Frame, Hugh Walker, Lillian Sloan, G. Frank Burns -- The Democrat was a weekly newspaper. Each front page would have 20 or more complete stories. Inside pages were filled with personal item columns written by correspondents in Gladeville, Centerville, Taylorsville, Route 7. Society editor Margaret Brown filled other pages with social tidbits. The staff crammed seven days of news into one edition.

Now, that was local news. Nobody wants to return to those days, but the mantra “local news” should always prevail.

Veteran journalist J B Leftwich is a regular columnist for The Lebanon Democrat. His email address: leftwichjb@charter.net.


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Last Updated: June 30, 2006