As I prepare to celebrate a new year, I find myself, again, pondering the future of the newspaper industry, which has been free-falling the last couple of decades. (No one calls them “newspapers,” anymore, a term redolent of dirty fingers and dead trees. They're “media properties,” “outlets,” or some other term reflecting the growing presence of digital.)
The industry has lost more than half of its jobs over the last 15 years. Layoffs, and budget cuts are the new norm. Print circulations keep falling, as the industry scrambles to find ways to make money off digital. (If newspapers don't profit, they won't survive.)
Editors and publishers are sticking up moist fingers, trying to determine what consumers of news and information want. Truth be told, none of us have any idea what people want.
For me, the real issue is how to make newspapers matter again, or matter more, even if they won't have the influence and swag they had in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s – before network news, before cable, before the internet, before social media, before smart phones. (Not everyones in the business agrees. Some think newspapers have more sway than ever – they're just reaching people through different platforms.)
Either way, newspapers must continue to make a difference, to right wrongs, to take up an occasional lost cause, to inform and entertain, to make communities better, and to write moving pieces that make people laugh or cry, and ask their friends, “Did you read that story in the (fill in the blank with the newspaper of your choice).
Whenever I worry about newspapers not mattering, something reminds me they do. Whatever the platform, they will matter as long as they do what they do best: Expose abuses of power and provide information with context, depth, urgency, passion, and even, on occasion, grace.
I saw many examples of that at the Detroit Free Press. In my seven months in Palestine, I've seen, on a smaller scale, many more.
Last week, a homeless man, Kenneth Hicks, called me, asking for help. I wrote a column. Reporter William Patrick wrote an article for Friday's paper that told Hicks' story. The ensuing Facebook discussion included two job opportunities for Hicks – one at Sanderson Farms and another with a roofing company, thanks largely to a concerned reader, Jennifer Cummings.
Everyone in the newsroom, especially Patrick, got juiced about that. Journalists are fortunate to have a platform, however big or small, to make a difference. As long as they do, newspapers will matter – whatever they are called.