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CHRIS KATTERJOHN Commentary: Newspapers' eulogies premature

April 3, 2006

With the proliferation of news sites on the Internet, much has been made of the pending death of newspapers.

As the so-called new media attract bigger and bigger audiences, especially among young adults, newspapers are being characterized as the "emblem of the old media" and "an industry on the defensive."

Not so fast.

As we consider the demise of newspapers, it would be wise to do a reality check on current trends and perhaps revisit the ideas that made newspapers a medium of choice and primary social watchdog to begin with.

"The evidence does not support the notion that newspapers have begun a sudden death spiral," concludes an exhaustive study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an affiliate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, "The State of the News Media, 2006" found the following: "Circulation and job cuts will probably tally at only about 3 percent for [2005]. The industry still posted profit margins of 20 percent. Measuring print and online together, the readership of many newspapers is higher than ever."

Citing several surveys, the study (which can be found at www.journalism.org) also noted that the overall audience for news online grew little, if any, last year. People who did use the Internet, however, appeared to be doing so more often.

Numerous other studies have shown that the largest growth in audience and ad revenue among online news sources on the Internet belongs to newspaper Web sites.

With this information in hand, one might reasonably conclude that newspapers aren't dying at all, but are changing to meet the new challenges head on. In Darwinian style, they are evolving.

And it's a good thing, not only for me and IBJ Corp., but for you.

Stop and think what newspapers and their companion Web sites offer that is not provided by most non-newspaper Web news sites, which typically aggregate the work of others or provide limited sourcing for their content.

Newspapers offer professional news staffs that have been trained to gather news, report it accurately and make judgments about what is important and of interest to readers. That is the value proposition of the newspaper industry.

And make no mistake: Newspapers are by far the biggest news-gathering organizations in most U.S. cities.

Couple that firepower with newspaper brands that have established reputations for integrity and competency, and you have a strong case for the value of newspapers and the information they provide.

In this age of blogs, when anyone can throw up a Web site and comment on the world's events with no accountability to anyone, this is an argument that isn't made ... or heard by the public ... nearly often enough.

"People in the newspaper industry have got a lot riding on this-our jobs and reputations for starters; but the stakes for society are far higher," writes Gary Pruitt, CEO of McClatchy Newspapers, in the Wall Street Journal.

Pruitt, whose company just agreed to plunk down $6.5 billion to buy Knight Ridder Newspapers, goes on to say: "Selfgovernment depends on continuous civic conversation, which in turn depends on people having a common vocabulary. Without a shared sense of what the problems are, there's little hope of finding solutions.

"That shared middle-a place where people basically agree about the facts and the issues, even if they differ over what to do about them-is where we believe our responsibilities as newspaper owners lie. And it is under assault by spinmeisters, partisans and ideologues. They all have their place in a democracy-but it is not in the center. Our place is."

So, the next time you go looking for information on the Web, keep this in mind and perhaps remember the admonition my parents gave me when evaluating information of any kind: "Consider the source."



Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com.
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