Newspapers can save the world — really!

Strange at it may seem, not a lot of people bother reading or watching the news. When I was a little kid, newspapers sold 60,000,000 copies a day to a nation of 180,000,000 people. That’s one paper for every three people. Today, the roughly 330,000,000 people in the United States buy about 20,000,000 papers daily. So, the population has nearly doubled and newspaper circulation has shrunk by two-thirds. To put it in a different way, accounting for little kids, households with more than one person reading the same paper (or talking about whatever they found important or interesting in the paper), and so on, over my lifetime we’ve gone from a situation where the daily newspaper was a part of normal day-to-day life for pretty much everyone to one where three out of four people probably don’t particularly know what’s in the paper on any given day, or even care.

New York City newspaper street stall in New York Times Square area. 1982. By Vaticanus, Wikipedia Commons

That much is unfortunately already pretty well known and lamented, but not really understood at all. You can find authoritative analysis claiming that people are too busy to read long articles, or too distracted,r too lazy, since it takes time and effort to sit down, open the paper and concentrate on what you’re reading.

Then there are the assertions that people don’t read the newspaper because it’s easier to get your news watching TV — that was the claim for declining newspaper circulation in the 1970’s and 1980’s. That analysis supported the emergence of cable news stations in the 1990’s and 2000’s, whose names need not be mentioned here.

But television and cable news does not get much more traction in the public mind that the local newspaper. Add up all the people who watch the evening news on all of the stations you can access on your TV and you’ll find that they have no more than maybe one person in five in any community in the nation actually watching. Four out of five don’t bother.

It may be tempting to think that newspapers are in competition with social media for people’s time and attention, but that’s not really fair. Social media today are the same as lunch rooms and bus stops and ball games and picnics used to be back in the day, places where people get together and chat about things they care about, share their excitement and concerns and annoyances and complaints, often about what they read in the paper — or heard on TV.

The bottom line is this: people don’t buy or read newspapers because the newspapers they can buy don’t provide any value to them — or at least you can bet three out of four people don’t find the newspaper to have anything in it worth their time or money. If you think otherwise, then perhaps you don’t really know people all that well — and you probably don’t have a lot of respect for their intelligence or public spirit.

I hold one very strong conviction about newspapers: they are as important in the life of every community as your mind and senses are to your own life. People need to know more than they can see for themselves, they need perspectives that they don’t already have, and they can’t satisfy any of these needs just by talking with their friends or neighbors, people who probably don’t know much more than they know or think much differently than they already think.

Without good reporting, presented effectively and provided to the widest possible cross-section of the community, the number of risks everyone is subject is enormous. It’s bad…

So, as I see it, if people are not reading the newspaper, they are not really all that aware of what is going on in the world around them. They are not able to put their collective minds to any purpose. They are divided and vulnerable, prone to gossip and slander, unaware of challenges and problems until they emerge as disasters, and then they are prey to distrust and conflict among themselves. It can be really bad…

So, publishing newspapers people find of value, that they are willing to pay to read, is crucial to the welfare of the community. It may be a business, it has to pay its way, but it’s also a mission, a critical public service.

I am convinced that newspapers, along with television and radio news services and other local social media, can make money providing their critical services to the public. You can earn a living publishing and selling papers. But to do so, you need to know what people need to know. You need to understand what they will find of value, what they will be willing to pay for.

Do this and you can change the world, one community at a time.

Next installment: Newspapers can save the world — really!

Learned in the Army to provide information that is thorough, accurate, meaningful and useful — and what happens when you don’t.

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