Ayden, NC – During one of the frequent and interminable meetings of my 15-year newspaper career, someone mentioned an advantage people in the advertising department enjoyed that was not shared by us in the newsroom. Maybe it was bigger offices or better parking. I don't recall. But I do remember someone else grumbled that newsroom employees do the work for which people BUY the newspaper. It might have been me, but if it wasn't, I certainly agreed.
I had forgotten my own introduction to newspapers, the funny pages. I got the comics while my parents pored over the ads, the obituaries, the classifieds, the horoscope. Like many newspaper subscribers, they got their news, almost accidentally, along the page-turning path through those other delights a newspaper provides.
The sad fact about the watchdog service newspapers provided our democracy through most of the 20th century is that it was often incidental to, and dependent upon, the other goodies in that that folded bundle of newsprint. We learned in this first decade of the 21st century that other media could deliver those treats more reliably. And so we watch the slow death of an American institution.
It's sad for a former newspaperman to watch, sadder still for those good friends at newspapers who must deal with new rounds of layoffs every few months.
Newspaper circulation was declining back in the early 80s when I started my career. The Web applied the fatal blows and the recession is readying the coup de grace. Papers are folding right and left. Even The New York Times and the Washington Post are hurting. The owners of both Chicago newspapers have filed for bankruptcy. McClatchy, which owns two of the four papers I worked for, recently laid off another 15 percent of its workforce.
Great minds have pondered these death throes. Some see a non-profit model sustaining digital news. Readership is growing on the Web, but Web culture says everything should be free. Others argue you can micro-charge per article, the way iTunes sells songs.
And some say, who cares? Web-based publications cover national politics, and the crowd-source ethic of the Internet will make reporters of us all.
Lost in this national mulling is any idea of who will cover crime in Greenville or New Bern or Jacksonville. Who will tell us about abuses at state mental health facilities? Who will keep the school board honest? Public radio will do its part, of course, but it cannot replace the daily newspaper.
The rest of us must start dealing with these questions, before the last press run ends and the newsroom lights dim for the last time.