November 3, 2009

Krebs column: Is journalism dying? It depends on who you ask...

November 1, 2009

By Randy KrebsTimes opinon editor

I’ve been a professional journalist for almost a quarter century, and I (willingly) followed my father — who followed his father and mother — into journalism and the newspaper business.
I tell you that because when I say “I’ve heard my entire life that newspapers and journalism are dying,” you know I speak the truth. And yet the industry is still here. More importantly, and according to the latest buzz, 70 percent of these operations are profitable.
Yet Wednesday I attended a panel discussion, “Newspapers, Internet, And The Future Of Democracy,” featuring some knowledgeable journalists and educators, all of whom seemed so convinced that newspapers and journalism are dead that, well, I wondered if I should show up for work the next day. (I did — and we even printed a paper, put information on the Web, helped people express their views, etc.)
The event was part of a bimonthly series of informal discussions on issues related to public policy and politics, sponsored by St. John’s University’s McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement. It featured host and political science professor Jim Read; Kathleen Hansen, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Minnesota; Katie Johnson, Communication Department at St. John’s/College of St. Benedict; and Nick Coleman, senior fellow, McCarthy Center, and award-winning columnist.
As much as I respect their opinions, I must say these panelists made perhaps the most unforgivable journalistic sin: They didn’t check out all sides of the obituary — I mean story — before they wrote it.
Indeed, from what I heard them say, none of them have researched — much less worked in — the world in which I work, the world of small daily and weekly newspapers.
Don’t get me wrong. I certainly see and agree with some of their broader points.
Yes, the digital age is changing journalism. (I’d argue those are good changes, but that’s another panel discussion.) Yes, the traditional newspaper model needs to change. (It is changing; see And most certainly, the biggest newspapers and media companies in America are facing serious financial and journalistic challenges.
Yet to hear the panelists tell it, the struggles of the Star Tribune and a handful of other major metro newspapers make it certain that all other newspapers will die. And soon. After all, if The New York Times can’t make enough money to keep its Israel bureau open or if the Strib has to cut its Washington staff, well, that can only mean one thing: The St. Cloud Times and weekly newspapers will go under, too.
Sorry, but at the least, I call that conclusion arrogant. More so, though, I question its accuracy. (Last I checked, the Strib emerged from bankruptcy and still is among the best and biggest newspapers in the Upper Midwest.)
More importantly, from the Minnesota Newspaper Association: Of the 3,133,857 Minnesotans receiving newspapers, only 27 percent (873,249) are receiving a daily newspaper. That means 2,260,608 are receiving a paper that is not printed daily. Additionally, only 17 percent receive the Strib or St. Paul newspaper.
The reality is newspapers are like any industry. The parts that make up “the industry” all vary — in size, product, mission, technology, customers, profitability, etc. Those individual parts either evolve or they die. When hasn’t that been the case?
And while I fully acknowledge that the industry is in perhaps its biggest time of change, I can’t stress enough that it’s an industry built not on the printed word, but on providing news and information — two things more in demand today than at any other time.
So while it is troubling that some big metro daily papers are caught up in a recession while battling massive debt, from where I sit — the newsroom of a small daily newspaper — I don’t see those struggles dragging down the other 70 percent of the parts that are still profitable.
Sure, at some point your news and information might not come in the form of ink and dead trees. But you still will want that product. The challenge for the industry is to determine how to gather and deliver it in a profitable way.
That’s very different than declaring newspapers and journalism are dead just because a few of the biggest trees might be falling.
This is the opinion of Randy Krebs, St. Cloud Times Opinion Page editor. He can be reached at 255-8762 and