Bailing out newspapers; where is it all going?

Lisa Zehner

Carmine Festa, the deputy chief editor of Italy’s largest newspaper, Corriere del Mezzogiorno, toured newspapers in United States last week, listening to translated jargon used by editors of the Washington Post and elsewhere, trying to describe their current predicament with an austere and yet optimistic tone. It didn’t take long for Festa, whose primary language is Italian, to read through the mannered words of exhausted editors, scrambling to revive a struggling industry. Some things are simply universal and without a need for translation. For Festa, the newspaper slump is one of those things. Festa was traveling America for about three weeks thanks to the Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program that invites persons of leadership to learn American culture in person. He observed the Washington Post’s election week coverage before getting dragged out to Minnesota to meet with journalism professionals and then, to put the cherry on top, visiting The Minnesota Daily. We talked elections and newspapers, trying to get a grip on where things might be going. Much of what is happening across America with newspapers is also happening in Europe, Festa said. His newspaper serves 1 million people and many others through the Web, but advertising and other sources of revenue have been waning. His answer has been that of finding a niche to serve your audience by providing information that they can only receive through the very paper they hold. Whether that is calendars for local events or investigative looks into local government officials, these things people still read papers for. But the bread and butter of journalism (i.e. investigative reporting) is becoming hard to find. Many newspapers are losing money so quick that they have to cut their investigative reporters or force them to do quick stories like everyone else. And everyone else is now goes on the morning radio show to do a report, then to do their stand up for the local TV station and then on their way to write the story for next day’s paper. Or we get a melting pot of a mobile journalist, or mojo, who does it all for one media outlet by writing, shooting photos, making a slideshow or video and blogging and edit for the Web. Breathe. Did you catch all that? But there is some promising things happening in Italy, and in other places in Europe (and in America) that Festa mentioned. The glimmer of hope lies in community newspapers. Most are thriving. The other fascinating aspect in Europe is that more privately-owned newspapers are springing up. In many of the countries, including my motherland of Belarus, newspapers are owned and regulated as part of a branch of government. It’s a way to communicate with the citizens if you will. Growing up in Belarus, even at the age of 7, I was well aware that journalists who wrote the articles I attempted to read were censored and controlled by the Soviet government. I remember my dad sitting at the kitchen table on Saturday mornings to read Izvestia or Pravda, two Communist-controlled daily newspapers. Over a cup of tea, he would grumble about false reporting on government officials who were known to be corrupt. After he finished reading the paper he always passed it along, knowing I liked to look at photographs and read the articles as best as I could. But he always reminded me that it was Communist propaganda. “This isn’t the truth, Vadim,” he would say in Russian, then tell me to read between the lines of articles in the paper. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of, “It’s more like entertainment, but real truth is out there.” It was out there. I just had to come to America to find it. I can still remember my cousin translating the headlines from Minnesota’s Star Tribune to me when I was 9 years old. I was amazed at the content on the front page, the people that reporters could access and questions the information posed. When I asked my cousin how they were able to do this, he smiled at me and said, “Welcome to America.” But now, the industry that has served people by working their best to bring people truth each day and documenting history as it happens and unfolds, is struggling because advertisers think that no one reads them anymore. That’s very hard to believe considering many weekly papers’ readership has gone up over the last year, including the local Business Journal. Sure, maybe the big Stribs and Pi-Presses of the world may have to dwindle down, but the heart and purpose of journalism will remain. People will always look for good story telling or for paid professionals to gather news and report it. Perhaps, it may change in format, but it will remain.