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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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” 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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.