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2008: A year of bad news for news

Tuesday, December 30, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CST; updated 9:34 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Suffering the nationwide trend in declining circulation of newspapers, the Missourian’s decision to reduce its print editions to five days a week, dropping the Saturday and Monday publications, is more troubling than the mere disappointment factor incurred. Nevertheless, losing those editions is far less damaging than the proposed alternatives – cutting back to two publication dates or a partnership with another newspaper.

As an avowed news junkie, I will miss my Saturday and Monday paper and, as one who reads virtually everything, I hate to see comic strips scrapped as a cost saving measure. However, there are some syndicated columnists I will not miss. I am certain that several readers hold hopes that my column will be one of those discontinued. Do not hold your breath — that is not going to happen — I work cheap.

That MU has agreed to continue financial support of the paper is gratifying as the Missourian is vital not only to the school and the community but also to the journalism profession. As the world’s first school of journalism was established here, pioneering also the very first university-published city daily, the teaching of grass-roots reporting began. While I am seldom given to the melodramatic, Missouri’s J-School is a national treasure – the Missourian is an integral part of the industry.

The decline in newspaper circulation is an ongoing one, having begun in earnest in the 1980s. It has accelerated  sharply since 2003. The average annual circulation loss approaches 5 percent – a 2008 audit of 500 newspapers showed a 4.6 percent decline in weekday circulation and 4.8 percent on Sundays. The decay in Sunday subscriptions is particularly alarming as that day constitutes the largest share of advertising revenue.

With the exception of USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, the tailspin is felt by virtually all of the major dailies; from The Washington Post’s 1.9 percent decline, the New York Times at 3.5, the Los Angeles Times at 5 percent, the San Francisco Chronicle at 7 percent and the Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer at 10.1 and 11 percent, respectively. The advertising and circulation revenue shortfalls are reflected in personnel layoffs and some limited delivery.

To those of us who live and breathe daily newspapers, this situation borders on tragedy, portending only to worsen in the future. The advent of 24 hours a day, 7 days a week TV news coverage and the Internet with its blogs and political commentary has altered the presentation of news and not for the better. Network and cable television feed selected tidbits of news and events to those who are intellectually satisfied with sound bites or sensational episodes chosen for them by the networks and delivered by star-studded casts.

The Internet does provide a wealth of useful information in quick time, but the reporting of news therefrom ranges from editorializing to unedited political commentary – it may be entertaining and informative but, it isn't real journalism. For example, entities such as the Daily KOS, the Drudge Report and the Huffington Press are oft quoted as sources but, who is responsible for the truth of the matter stated therein?

The Wall Street Journal and USA Today have held their own and have even registered moderate circulation increases, primarily because they appeal to a distinct segment of readers. The WSJ’s financial and editorial content is well respected, while USA Today prides itself on being “America’s newspaper” and concentrates on news of national and worldwide interest as opposed to regional or local coverage. Personally, I find USA Today to be little improvement over TV offerings – its coverage is shallow and stilted rather than a satisfying, in-depth reporting.

Leading this trend has, for the most part, been the younger generations as they have turned to cable TV and the Internet for quick fixes on current events. Also, and most unfortunately, people do not read as they did in the past – in 1946, about 36 percent of the population purchased a daily paper. Today, fewer than 18 percent of Americans buy a daily or Sunday edition.

Color me old fashioned, but I believe in grass-roots journalism that reporters learn by doing the “grunt” work under the tutelage of learned and experienced editors. I also believe in the public identifying with reporters, whether a metro area such as New York or a mid-sized market as is Columbia. Reporters with a name and a face tend to engender a ready acceptance if not an actual trust of the Fourth Estate – familiarity need not breed contempt.

Finally, the university and the Missourian boast 100 years of training many of the world’s best journalists – men and women who know the difference between reporting and editorializing. We can ill afford to lose this expertise.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.


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