At first glance, Kevin Slimp doesn’t seem the suit-and-tie type. The bearded, mop-haired veteran publisher with a quick smile and warm Southern accent might be best placed at your backyard barbeque, actively engaging the relatives in talk on any number of issues.
Truth is, he has a discussion-worthy perspective on a specific topic: the demise (real or imagined) of print journalism.
Slimp is a frequent go-to source on the issue, which has generated a lot of attention in recent years—perhaps nowhere as pointed as in New Orleans.
In May 2012, the storied Times-Picayune dropped its print product to three days a week while moving most of its content online. So great was the public outcry that its distant rival, the Baton Rouge based daily The Advocate, rapidly became the preferred choice for Times-Picayune refugee readers, even hiring award-winning reporters away from its downsized rival.
When digital-first decisions soon followed at several Alabama newspapers, Slimp observed: “What happened in New Orleans, Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville last week is a total abuse of the public trust.”
I met Slimp last week as he visited Kalamazoo to assess the impact of similar decisions at the former Booth Newspapers, now known as MLive Media Group—interestingly, part of the same media conglomerate that owns the aforementioned outlets, the Newhouse family-run Advance Publications. MLive includes the Kalamazoo Gazette, which went to digital-first in early 2012, continuing to print daily but limiting home delivery to three days a week.
Most of the people who met with Slimp were fervent evangelists of print. They offered compelling arguments why the death of newspapers—if one assumes they are, in fact, dying—is the death of journalism itself.
Digital news, they contend, does not lend itself to the analytical depth that is the strength of newspapers. Online users want their news succinct, and they want it now. That puts pressure on news outlets to emphasize quantity over quality—an effect worsened by the almost-vicious staff cuts in newsrooms across the country.
For his part, Slimp offered data that seems to indicate the rumored death of newspapers is decidedly premature. His analysis shows print growth outpacing digital, projecting it will do so for years. Newspapers also appear to remain profitable, whereas digital advertising has yet to prove lucrative. And the Orange County Register has bucked the downsizing trend by growing staff and investing heavily in its print product.
“Why do we keep writing our own obituary?” Slimp asked.
As an old newspaperman myself, I tend to agree that the breathless rush from print to online is not only ill-advised, but dangerous. Neither digital nor other forms of electronic media can adequately replace the thoughtful, in-depth, enterprise reporting that newspapers have honed for well over a century. Nor have digital or electronic media yet proved to serve effectively as the “community’s record,” any more than they provide the ongoing public forum that newspapers traditionally served.
In dumping print for digital while trashing newsrooms, the industry not only decimates its ability to do exquisite journalism but alienates the very consumers it hopes to enchant—or at least retain. A daily newspaper is a guest that people invite into their homes; an online publication is a commodity they have to retrieve. It’s a fundamentally different relationship.
At the same time, I’m not as quick to decry the role of online or broadcast media. They play a key role as well, particularly where immediacy is vital—so long as they don’t sacrifice accuracy on the Altar of Breaking News First, which has consequences both tragic and embarrassing.
Further, without some as-yet-unknown technological leap, newspapers will never be as readily accessible as their electronic brethren. They can attempt to play in that (cyber)space, and probably should, but have little hope of dominating it.
I've said before that a daily, delivered newspaper is a guest invited into one's home; an online news source is a commodity that one must retrieve. The relationship is fundamentally different—which is why I think there is room, indeed a need, for both.
The era of “stop the presses!” and “extra! extra!” is long past. The future role of newspapers must be different—more thoughtful, more analytical, devoted to providing that necessary community forum and serving as the watchdog of society. Digital and electronic will always have the upper hand in terms of immediacy. My suggestion: Let them.
Print journalism hasn’t figured this out yet. I expect we’ll continue to read about the death of newspapers and the hacking of newsroom staff for some time to come. But once the light dawns, I predict a modest swing of the pendulum back toward print, even as digital remains a strong force by forging its own path.
If both are done well, the result will be a stronger, more reliable and more effective Fourth Estate.