Industry woes concern readers, journalists alike

August 28, 2005|By Paul Moore

AN OPINION piece published Aug. 14 in The Sun's Opinion/Commentary page - "Can newspapers reverse their decline?" - offered a quick overview of the state of newspaper journalism in America.

Michael Socolow, a journalism professor at Brandeis University, argued that recent decisions by newspaper owners and publishers have contributed as much to the crisis in credibility and circulation as the well-publicized ethical scandals at The New York Times, USA Today and other newspapers.

He lamented the loss of competition among newspapers: "By the early 1990s, newspaper companies and their corporate owners believed that double-digit profit margins were normal for the business ... . Worse, they took their monopoly for granted and assumed news consumers were satisfied."

Now that those profits are threatened by intense competition from new media outlets and by changing social and cultural forces, Socolow says, most newspaper companies have cut staff, news features and news hole and "to offer the public more of what it wants to read - not what experienced editors believe the public needs to read."

Citing "financial considerations," The Sun decided last week not to renew the freelance contract for retired Sun reporter Jules Witcover's twice weekly op-ed column. The decision generated dozens of complaints from readers.

Nadine Weinstein wondered if the circulation decline "is because people are reading less or there is less to read. I think the decision to drop Mr. Witcover is an example of the latter," she said. "I also think the points Mr. Socolow raised are very important. A lot of older, committed Sun readers are very concerned about where the newspaper is headed."

From John Stack: "I'm a newspaper fanatic and have read The Sun avidly for many years, but newspapers in general seem to be diminishing. Losing Jules Witcover's column is just another example of the kinds of bad decisions made because of money. This is just like another nail in the coffin. I despair for the future of newspapers."

Newspaper employees also are very concerned about the future.

It's not as if reporters and editors expect to be immune from the pressures that most working Americans feel, but the economic forces rocking the industry are producing a growing uncertainty about the viability of a career in newspapers.

This summer, three Sun staff writers left the newsroom to pursue other opportunities. Ryan Davis and Laura Loh, two talented young reporters who, respectively, covered Baltimore police and city schools, have opted to enter graduate schools in business. Sports columnist Laura Vecsey has left The Sun, saying she has no definite plans for the future.

And now Bill Atkinson, who has worked at The Sun for 10 years and is a business section columnist, has decided to leave the business. He is entering the field of "corporate crisis communications."

His last day at the newspaper is this Friday.

Atkinson, 45, has worked in newspapers for 22 years and has covered the national economy, banking and mutual funds as well as some of the biggest breaking business news stories in Baltimore.

He listed a number factors for leaving, including family and financial considerations, but he acknowledged that the growing turmoil in the industry also played a significant part.

As newspaper companies struggle to compete with the Internet, cable TV and bloggers, corporate decisions to shrink budgets to maintain or boost the bottom line make Atkinson, and many of his colleagues, very uneasy.

"Companies want more from reporters, photographers and graphics," Atkinson said. "While I believe people rise and fall on their own merits, I fear my worth to the newspaper will only diminish with age. As I become more expensive, I worry that one day I will be looked upon as a liability."

He points to continuing turnover at The Sun and other newspapers, where buyouts and shifts in top editing and publishing positions have occurred. "How do you build morale and keep momentum flowing with these kinds of changes?" Atkinson said.

The uncertainties felt inside newsrooms also affect readers.

Larry La Motte, who says he read The Sun for 50 years, sent a poignant e-mail last week. After describing his frustration with what he perceives are fewer pages and fewer stories in the newspaper, he said:

"I understand and sympathize that newspapers are not getting the advertising they used to and that circulation is down. However, the vicious cycle has to be broken. ... I fear the day when there are only bloggers and no professional newspapers and reporters. Our democracy won't be worth spit if that happens. If The Sun can't improve and the most loyal of newspaper readers and news junkies like me stop subscribing, then what will we have? Can you give me any hope?"

My hope is that passionate pleas such as this one by Mr. La Motte will not fall on deaf ears and that there will be a time when journalists like Bill Atkinson will not decide to leave newspapers.

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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