BY NICK DIAMANTIDES
Thomas Jefferson believed that a democracy could not survive without newspapers. “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right,” he wrote in 1787. “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
From the birth of the United States of America until the late 20th Century, most Americans relied on newspapers to inform them about the events of their day, and the activities of their government. Nowadays, television news with its high emphasis on entertainment and biased Internet blog sites have taken big bites out of newspaper readership, and newspapers all across the nation are laying off reporters in droves. Last Saturday, the Long Beach Chapter of the League of Women Voters (LWV) sponsored a panel discussion entitled “Press in Transition” to focus on the challenges faced by print media. The six panelists included: Rich Archbold, executive editor of the Press Telegram; Neena Strichart, publisher of the Signal Tribune; Harry Salzgaver, executive editor of Gazette Newspapers; Danny Paskin, assistant professor of journalism at CSULB; Jeffery Rabin, former Los Angeles Times reporter; and Douglas Shuit, also a former Times reporter. About 50 people attended the discussion, which took place in the auditorium of the main library in downtown Long Beach.
The panelists responded to questions from LWV moderator Jan Gallup.
Archbold was the first to speak. He began by noting that without all the forms of news media, Americans would not be informed on vital issues and important events. “What we do is critical,” he said, adding that, in spite of competition from electronic media, newspapers are not dead. “Newspapers are going to be around for the next century,” he said. “What we don’t know is what form they are going to take.” He explained that many daily newspapers might stop publishing on Mondays and Tuesdays — the hardest days to sell ad space. He added that many newspapers are now operating their own websites in addition to their hard-copy editions, but there is no lack of readership. “People who are hungry for news, who want to read more, are out there,” he said. “The problem we are facing is we are not getting the money to benefit from our online participation in the same way that (we get it from our printed newspapers).”
Strichart said that it would be a tragedy if Long Beach ceased having a daily newspaper, but weekly newspapers play a vital role in the dissemination of important information. “We can provide information about the neighborhoods that (daily newspapers) can’t,” she explained. “It shouldn’t be ‘either/or.’ We need both.”
Gallup noted that one of the challenges faced by newspapers is the loss of advertising revenue, about which she asked Rabin to comment. “There is no question that the newspaper industry is facing the most serious threat of its existence,” he said, explaining that millions of Americans are now getting their information from the Internet but that venue does not supply the level of advertising revenue necessary to support extensive news coverage. He added that advertising in a down economy is “falling like a rock.”
Rabin noted that he was one of 275 reporters laid off or bought out by the L.A Times in 2008, which reflected a national trend. He added that declining readership of printed newspapers and advertising revenues have forced a decline in in-depth news coverage of national and international events and behind-the-scenes reasons for decisions made by governmental leaders. “Indeed we are in a crisis and we are struggling,” he said.
Following up on that statement, Shuit said he had been witnessing a decline for about a decade. He explained that in the 1980s and 1990s the Times had a team of reporters assigned to cover the state legislature and he was able to undertake investigative journalism projects that delved into the reasons behind the state’s mounting budget woes. “Things are even worse in the state now than they were then,” he said. “And the coverage is almost nil.”
He lamented the fact that because of declining revenues, newspapers are reducing their staffs and, as a result, there is a dearth of meaningful news coverage. “I wonder about those things, where information is coming from,” he said. “You have to hold elected officials’ feet to the fire and you wonder who is doing it these days.”
Rabin added that the buying and selling of newspaper shares on the New York Stock Exchange has contributed to the decline of news coverage. He explained that nowadays too many newspaper readers are not the dominant force, shareholders are.
Gallup then asked why the survival of weekly newspapers was important. “People that read the Signal Tribune depend on us for what’s happening around the corner,” Strichart said. She explained that weeklies cover neighborhood events that might not matter to people on the other side of town, but are very important to people who live in the area. “The other thing is, without us, what would small advertisers do,” she added. “They can’t afford to advertise in a daily newspaper.”
Salzgaver echoed Strichart’s comments. “The weeklies that I run are popular because they focus on the community,” he said. “We are able to address issues that affect our readers.”
The two-hour discussion focused on a broad range of topics. Generally the panelists agreed that American citizens were at risk of losing their ability to get accurate information on current events presented in an objective manner.
Paskin said the challenge was to find ways to pay the salaries of reporters dedicated to presenting facts and not mixing their opinions with those facts. “People are saying that newspapers are going to die, but we’re not going away,” he said. “Newsrooms will change a lot in the near future. They are going to have to expand more into the Internet, and they are going to have to find new ways of doing things.”