In addition to death and taxes, there is one more certainty in life – angst about the proper role and financial viability of the Columbia Missourian. This debate began over a hundred years ago, and it shows no signs of stopping. It is crucial, however, that the result of this ongoing struggle should not be the demise of the Missourian as we know it.
In a curious note to readers on June 6, Tom Warhover, who has the edgy title of Missourian executive editor for innovation, dropped a bombshell that has received remarkably little attention in the local media. He stated that because of pressure from MU administrators, the School of Journalism is considering two ideas to save money. The first would be for an outside press to take total responsibility of printing the Missourian. The second idea, and a more unfortunate one, would be for the Missourian to be printed as infrequently as once a week.
The first idea doesn’t interest me much since the Missourian already outsourced its printing in 2006. The proposed new arrangement vaguely described by Warhover would let some other operation take over the printing, and in return it would receive unspecified “distribution and advertising considerations.” Warhover twice mentioned the Columbia Daily Tribune as a possible new partner.
The idea of the Tribune and Missourian becoming best friends forever would certainly be a change from the past. As chronicled in Steve Weinberg’s excellent new history of the J-School, “A Journalism of Humanity,” the Tribune argued against the Missourian’s existence even before the first edition was printed on Sept. 14, 1908. E.M. Watson, the Tribune editor/publisher and relative by marriage to the Waters family that still runs the Tribune to this day, plaintively asked in a 1908 missive whether it was fair for “the state to go into the newspaper business against private individuals.”
Ninety-eight years later, the Tribune publicly protested when it believed the bidding process to outsource the Missourian’s printing was rigged against them. In response, the dean of the Journalism School, R. Dean Mills, was quoted in 2006 as saying that the Tribune “is our direct competitor, and giving them the ability to print us is putting a gun to our heads if they don’t play well.” Ouch! Apparently the gun has been unloaded.
But while it’s vital to develop a financial plan to secure the Missourian’s long-term viability, it’s even more important to ensure that the Missourian is printed at all. If the suggested plan is implemented and the Missourian is printed only once a week, it’s the first stage of a death sentence and just a short time before publication is ceased altogether.
My preference for print is not some foggy nostalgic need for an anachronistic format. Millions of people start their day by reading a printed newspaper, or it’s the first thing they look at after coming home from work. Just this past week, a network TV reporter began her story on the Iowa floods by showing the front page of the local paper. Several TV news shows also include summaries of newspaper headlines or previews of what will be in next day’s papers. And let’s be honest. There are usually daily examples of local broadcast entities that do versions of stories that ran in the newspaper a day or two before, even though radio and television are supposed to be the “immediate” forms of communication.
I understand that a growing part of the population doesn’t read newspapers, or they only read the Web versions. I also get that the Internet is becoming an important, if not the most important source of information, whether it’s through blogs, social network groups or other Web sites. But the rise of one medium doesn’t necessarily mean the annihilation of another.
Books and magazines are still viable forms of communication. E-mail hasn’t put the U.S. Post Office out of commission. It was thought that television might leave radio and the motion picture industry in the dust. TV certainly changed the content and distribution methods for those industries, but they adapted. And so it is with newspapers. Many newspapers are already doing a better job of trying to provide more context and analysis in their stories to make up for their lack of immediacy. So to unilaterally stop printing the Missourian when newspapers are still a force in the communications industry would be madness.
There’s also the intangible gratification and convenience that printed media offer that can’t be matched. People want to save personal articles like birth announcements, obituaries and features about themselves or people they know. This is especially true when it is accompanied by solid photography. Have you ever heard of someone framing a printout of something they read on a Web site? And while iPhones and wireless computers are getting smaller and more convenient, there are just certain places where electronic devices aren’t the best option.
You can take a newspaper anywhere, you can jot notes on it, and you don’t have to worry about hauling around a printer. And it goes without saying that fans of Sudoku and crossword puzzles don’t have to be converted to the fact of the superiority of completing these tasks on paper versus their electronic cousins.
And would it be rude to point out that the Missourian eMprint, while innovative and technologically impressive, was pretty much a disappointment? For whatever reason, people and advertisers have not yet made the jump to electronic exclusivity.
I don’t discount the possibility that in the future our society may be unimaginably different where printed newspapers are as irrelevant as the telegraph. But that day is not yet here, and there is no reason to give up on the printed word when it is still such a powerful force.
If the University of Missouri School of Journalism is to retain its position as the first and foremast school in the land, it must maintain a truly all-inclusive program that attracts the best and brightest students. The Missouri Model works because it has been able to offer students an unparalleled “hands-on” approach to journalism. Taking the paper out of the newspaper diminishes the school’s reputation and the comprehensive nature of the students’ training.
In the near future, when a prospective student asks whether MU has a daily newspaper, the answer could be, “No, but we have a really cool Web site.” That is an answer that should make any booster of the J-School shudder, and it is one that I hope future students will never have to hear.
Ted Farnen of Columbia is a 1987 graduate of the MU School of Journalism and a former reporter for the Columbia Missourian.