From funeral to iPad, a glimmer of hope beams for democracy — and newspapers

BY BUCK RYAN Guest Column from the director of the Citizen Kentucky Project at the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Media,
Posted 10/25/19

Editor’s note: Buck Ryan, director of the Citizen Kentucky Project at the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Media, is visiting Chatham County through Oct. 26.

A funny thing …

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From funeral to iPad, a glimmer of hope beams for democracy — and newspapers

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Posted

Editor’s note: Buck Ryan, director of the Citizen Kentucky Project at the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Media, is visiting Chatham County through Oct. 26.

A funny thing happened on my way to the 5th annual U.S. Media Literacy Week. I went to the funerals of two old friends — and saw a glimmer of hope for newspapers.

That beacon of hope brought me to Chatham County to see what’s behind the exciting changes in the News + Record. I’ve witnessed a transformation with your newspaper’s redesign, new website, social media posts, community problem-solving forums and plans for podcasts, all with the aspiration to be the community’s No. 1 citizen fighting for the public good.

I just returned from Chicago where my Tribune Tower had cracked windows perfect for Halloween. It stood on the Magnificent Mile like a metaphor for the newspaper industry.

As a young editor, I remember meeting Joan Beck, a Tribune columnist for 48 years who focused on parenting and early childhood education among many social issues.

Her workbook, “Short Cuts to Reading — You Can Teach Your Child,” gave parents tips on teaching preschool children to read. It was first published by the Tribune in 1964 and drew more than 100,000 requests for reprints.

A newspaper’s mission that included teaching people to read is long gone.

Tribune Tower has been evacuated of journalists and is now being converted to condos ranging in price from $700,000 to $7 million. Not many journalists can afford those prices.

I was in Chicago two weeks ago to attend the 134th annual meeting of the Inland Press Association, the nation’s largest independent newspaper association. This year it was a joint meeting with the 117th annual Southern Newspaper Publishers Association conference.

Both associations died before my very eyes.

I toasted to a new merged organization, America’s Newspapers (newspapers.org). Good luck to it, and our democracy, which may hinge on an iPad and a measure of respect, if I see the future correctly.

In 1989 I was the only academic on the Future of Newspapers Committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. ASNE also disappeared into a merger with APME (Associated Press Managing Editors) to become NLA (News Leaders Association/newsleaders.org).

A few of us on the ASNE committee saw the house on fire, and sure enough, in the last 15 years, “we’ve lost approximately 2,100 newspapers, all but 70 of which are weeklies,” says journalism professor Penny Abernathy at the University of North Carolina.

Why?

If you are reading this for free on your cell phone and not in a printed newspaper with a subscription, then you can guess why.

As one of my former students lamented, “The dollars are in print advertising, dimes online, and pennies for mobile. If the future is mobile, how am I going to run a newspaper on pennies?”

Adding insult to insolvency are those waiting to dance on the grave of a liberal press.

But there’s hope beyond Chatham County. A beam of light emanates from Little Rock, Arkansas.

There Walter Hussman Jr., frustrated with the way journalism was defined on TV, drafted a seven-paragraph Statement of Core Values and started publishing it every day on Page 2 of his family-owned Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The statement starts with Adolph Ochs (1858-1935) — “To give the news impartially, without fear or favor” — and ends with his father, Walter Hussman (1906-1988) — put shareholders last after readers, advertisers, employees and creditors: “As long as the newspaper keeps those constituencies in that order, especially its readers first, all constituencies will be well served.”

Hussman told the Chicago conference that rather than drop staff or news pages, he cut his profit margin to the bone. The killer was circulation costs, especially in the far corners of Arkansas.

With respect wrapped in a four-page explanatory letter, he began converting subscribers in small towns to reading the newspaper on an iPad, offering free devices and training at hotels. They are reading newspaper pages as they were published, not a website, for $34 to $36 a month with delivery as early as 4 a.m.

The results so far, he says: Many readers love being able to increase the point size for reading; they prefer seeing all color photos, some that turn to videos; they like being able to share articles with a click, and for advertising, they can see products in various colors — a selling point for advertisers.

Slowly, Hussman is preserving the power of the press as he holds his readers’ hands into the digital age.

To insure the future, his family dropped the largest gift ever — $25 million — on his alma mater, the journalism school at the University of North Carolina.

Enjoy U.S. Media Literacy Week (Oct. 21 to 25) and stay tuned, newspaper lovers. If good ideas like those here and in Arkansas catch on, maybe we won’t have to go to so many funerals.

Buck Ryan can be reached at buck.ryan@uky.edu.

Buck Ryan

Guest Columnist

Buck Ryan

Guest Columnist

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