Mon 29 Jul 2013
During the 27 years I edited and published The Point Reyes Light, I belonged to a variety of newspaper associations, among them: the San Francisco Press Club; the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA); the National Newspaper Association (NNA); and the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors (ISWNE).
Since retiring at the end of 2005, however, the only membership I’ve maintained is in ISWNE. The society’s purpose, to quote our website, “is to help those involved in the weekly press to improve standards of editorial writing and news reporting and to encourage strong, independent editorial voices.”
Moreover, the society really is international notwithstanding its being based in the American heartland at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin. Three or four years ago, ISWNE listed the locations of its members’ newspapers, and I was surprised to see there were more in Alberta than California.
ISWNE’s annual conferences are often held abroad: Calgary, Alberta, 1994; London, Edinburgh, Cardiff & Dublin, 1995; Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1999; Victoria, British Columbia, 2000; Galway, Ireland, 2003; Edmonton & Fort McMurray, Alberta, 2005; Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, 2009; Coventry, England, 2011. In 2016, the group will head to Australia.
Postings from this blog are occasionally republished in the ISWNE newsletter.
Whether they’re in the US or abroad, most ISWNE members edit community weeklies. One of the more active members, who happens to be particularly savvy about community newspapers in the UK, is Jeremy Condliffe, who edits The Congleton Chronicle in Congleton, Cheshire, England. Perhaps these international editors merely have small-town common sense, but their comments in ISWNE’s publications and on its email hotline reflect a world of wisdom.
Why am I telling you all this? As a member of ISWNE, I receive its quarterly journal, Grassroots Editor, plus its monthly newsletter (above). I also read the bimonthly Columbia Journalism Review (below), which is published at Columbia University in New York City. The difference between New York’s and Joplin’s assessments of the state of newspapers is fascinating.
The author, Dan Kennedy, an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University, apparently imagines a day when nonprofit websites will replace many newspapers.
Post-Newspaper Age? The impression that newspapers in general are fading away has gained credence mostly from being so oft repeated.
It’s true that several well-known newspapers such as The Honolulu Advertiser and The Rocky Mountain News have folded in the last few years. Several big city dailies such as the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Detroit News, and the Detroit Free Press have cut back to three days a week. The Christian Science Monitor has had to drop its print edition and publish only online. We’ve all heard the story. It’s been discussed on CBS’s 60 Minutes.
In contrast, the spring issue of Grassroots Editor headlines a spot-check of far-flung weeklies, “Despite predictions of their pending demise, community newspapers are alive and well in: Montana, Bahamas, California, Ireland, Missouri, North Dakota, Atlantic Canada.”
“He explained that he’s visiting small Northern California newspapers to see what it’s really like in our world rather than assuming that we’re all in a rush to ditch print publication for online formats and iPhone apps.
“Apparently, the good folks at CNPA noticed that, wait a minute — not every small paper is dying a slow, choking death. Many are surviving, just as they are, despite years of economic stagnation and the explosion of online technology….
“People still want to read the city council stories on paper rather than watch them on cable, likely because waiting a week for the story is less painful than sitting through a meeting.”
Steve Andrist, executive director of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, put it more bluntly: “Those people who say newspapers are dead or irrelevant or dinosaurs — they’re still reading newspapers.” Nor is optimism about the future of newspapers unique to supposedly old-fashioned editors at county weeklies.
Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. holding company, is similarly optimistic about the future of bigger newspapers. And Buffett has amassed a personal fortune of $54 billion by knowing when a good business is undervalued.
In the past 19 months, Berkshire Hathaway has spent $344 million acquiring 28 daily newspapers. The company has stressed it doesn’t intend to “flip” (resell) any of these papers but instead plans to be their long-term owner.
In 2011, Buffett (left) was ranked the third richest man in the world. In 2008, he was the richest. He has repeatedly said the US under-taxes the rich and endorsed President Obama’s reelection.
It’s worth noting that Buffett does not interfere with his newspapers’ editorial policies. In a letter to shareholders, he wrote, “I voted for Obama; of our 12 dailies that endorsed a presidential candidate, 10 opted for Romney.”
Buffett also told shareholders why newspapers can survive regardless of widespread lamentations about their future:
“Newspapers continue to reign supreme,” he wrote, “in the delivery of local news. If you want to know what’s going on in your town – whether the news is about the mayor or taxes or high school football – there is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job.
“A reader’s eyes may glaze over after they take in a couple of paragraphs about Canadian tariffs or political developments in Pakistan; a story about the reader himself or his neighbors will be read to the end. Wherever there is a pervasive sense of community, a paper that serves the special informational needs of that community will remain indispensable to a significant portion of its residents.”
Buffett doesn’t dispute the need for daily papers to include national and international news but makes explicit that what sells newspapers is good coverage of local news.
That’s just what the weekly press has been doing all along, informing readers about events in their own community. This, in turn, is why weekly newspapers aren’t about to die off.
As usual, Buffett knows what he’s talking about. The last I heard, there were fewer than 5,000 households in West Marin; nonetheless, two competing weeklies, The Point Reyes Light and The West Marin Citizen, are able to survive here thanks to their both providing intense coverage of local news.