Decline of a newspaper

Note: The news in Los Angeles these days is about layoffs at the newspapers that make up the Southern California News Group, which is owned by Wall Street bankers organized as “Digital First Media.” This prompted me to write the following reflection on what happened when Digital First Media took over the Ohio newspaper at which I served for 35 years.

I spent most of my career at what we called a “medium sized” (40,000 circulation) daily in Ohio. We had stiff competition from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, along with another family owned paper in our home county (The Elyria, Chronicle-Telegram, which still seems remarkably alive and well) and smaller dailies in two neighboring counties.

Multiple newspapers landed every morning or afternoon on the doorsteps in the cities and filled orange, blue, white and red “tubes” attached to every mailbox post along the country roads. Our paper — The Morning Journal of Lorain, Ohio — was in the orange ones. (Believe it or not, there was a time when I helped run one of those early morning “motor routes,” for a family member had the delivery contract.)

The Morning Journal thrived in the late 80s and early 90s under a generous (and financially successful) publisher, Harry Horvitz, and a hard-driving editor, John G. Cole. We won national awards for a series called “When the Work Stops,” about job-killing changes in the steel, shipbuilding and auto industries, and for numerous explanatory journalism packages on topics such as Ritalin and Attention Deficit Disorder (“Generation Rx”), Heart Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, local race relations, the child protective system, and the quality of local public schools.

Then the Horvitz Newspapers were sold to the Journal Register Co. (which later became Digital First Media). By the late 1990s JRC was cutting payrolls by laying off editors, reporters and photographers. Not long after I retired in 2001 to become a college journalism teacher, the company eliminated it’s Lorain printing plant. Deadlines for sportswriters were moved up so readers had to look on line to find out who won under the Friday night lights. Just last year DFM sold the property and moved the remaining staff into a remodeled fast-food restaurant building.

Along the way, the paper stopped doing “blockbuster” journalism projects, and, more significantly, the early layoffs ended close-up coverage of the communities. Reporters stopped making daily rounds of police stations, city halls and school board offices. The newsroom was instructed to make morning-after calls to clerks of councils or boards to ask politely what had happened at the night meetings.

Slowly, it dawned on readers that their local newspaper no longer provided explanatory and “watchdog” journalism, and that they could just as well rely on web sites for classified listings of jobs, products and services and the scores of high school, college and professional sporting events. The readers stopped subscribing to Lorain’s printed newspaper, and the city doorsteps and country tubes are now empty.

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Predicting a revival of journalism

I believe that, as with the Nixon/Watergate era, the Trump era will usher in new enthusiasm for careers in journalism. In that earlier day young people were eager to go into battle against the forces of political misbehavior and corruption, even if it meant taking a vow of poverty. It will happen again for the generation now in colleges and secondary schools.

A new generation of students will come to JCU with that renewed sense of purpose, carrying on the Jesuit tradition of service to others in communication (and international journalism) as well as general mission work.

For example, the reduction in federal funding for the State Department, announced recently by Trump, is expected to have its biggest impact on development programs, including those that facilitate support for agriculture, medicine and communication in places like Rwanda, Haiti and the refugee camps of eastern Europe. Responsibility will shift from government to nonprofits.

Also, now the practice of local news reporting has taken an entrepreneurial turn. With its combination of programs in liberal arts and business, JCU may be the best place for young people to prepare for careers as independent writers and producers.

Time span to acquire meaning

Some research has been done on the question of “time span to acquire meaning” in news stories. In plain words, that means how quickly a typical reader at a particular time and place will understand and feel interested in a specific story. For example, if the story is about the Vatican, the reader who is Catholic or has visited Rome will probably be more likely to read at least the first few paragraphs of the story, while someone with neither characteristic/experience would skip it. Of course that’s why editors want to think about the audience they are serving with news and information. When you have a few minutes, you should look at a newspaper or web site and think about which stories interest you and why (and which do not).

Pay attention to grammar and style rules

In a podcast (“About the News”) I listened to while out for my morning walk today, Political writer Peter Hanby told interviewer Bob Schieffer that he got his start in journalism because as a high school student he used to send his local newspaper editor a daily critique of writing errors in found in the paper. The editor finally got tired of the emails and asked the young Hanby to come in and do copy and fact-checking as a member of the staff..
I thought about that again this afternoon when I started reading assignments contributed by students in my online journalism class and discovered some with errors in grammar (present instead of past tense) and style (abbreviated words that should have been spelled out).
There is a reason journalists are asked to use correct grammar and style in writing. If you don’t get it right, you will not find a post-graduation job, in journalism or another profession.