Credibility is the currency that keeps newspapers meaningful

In the centuries before the Internet, a newspaper’s power derived from the fact that it owned the only printing press in town. “Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel,” went the old saying.

The Internet and the phenomenon of the desktop publisher fundamentally and forever changed that power dynamic. Anyone with a computer and connection could, conceivably, reach millions of readers without the expense associated with a printing press, newsprint or the delivery apparatus.

Perhaps related, The Rocky Mountain News’ obituary is old news. The Tribune Company (which owns the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, among others) and Freedom Newspapers (which owns The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The Orange County Register, among others) have sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and the mighty New York Times is apparently hemorrhaging money. Several metro newspapers have one foot in the grave and one foot on a banana peel. So the newspaper industry is an expense-burdened dinosaur experiencing the final throes of extinction, right?

Perhaps not.

Most community newspapers, like The Daily Sentinel, remain profitable even in this horrific economy. Even most distressed metro newspapers remain profitable, but they are in trouble because they took on too much debt in advance of a down economy. So why in the age of the Internet when anyone can disseminate information to the masses for free are newspapers able to remain viable? There are a number of explanations associated with the paper product itself, such as: (1) people like the feel of the paper in their hands, (2) computer monitors are hard to read for long periods, and (3) you can’t necessarily haul the computer everywhere you want to go.

Even in this day and age, more people buy a printed newspaper the day after the Super Bowl than watched the game itself. In the Grand Valley, the printed newspaper is by far the biggest mass medium, making it the best advertising and information distribution mechanism in existence.

Nevertheless, I have no illusions about paper being the only medium that will take us into the future. iPhones and Kindles are as easy to haul around as a newspaper, and though they can’t weigh down your back tires in the winter, they are just the beginning. The future will undoubtedly present some technologies we never saw coming — perhaps a broadsheet-sized, light-emitting diode screen that can be folded up and placed in your shirt pocket.

But the medium that carries the news has little to do with the core value that newspapers offer readers — the industry’s greatest strength and hedge against obsolescence: the editorial process. Admittedly, a “process” is not sexy, and it’s not tangible like a printing press, but it’s why we exist. The information you read in newspapers contrasts sharply to the product of a nameless blogger or an axe-grinding ideologue whose agenda may not be apparent and reliability may be suspect. Rather, the information that newspapers present has been through a rigorous process in the hopes of presenting an accurate, fair, useful and penetrating account.

Do newspapers get it wrong? Of course. We’re human. But what separates newspapers from the bloggers and social media is strict adherence to the editorial process. Newspapers present information collected by a reporter, checked by a desk editor and inspected by a copy editor before going to print. The editorial process, not the power of the printing press itself, is the source of newspapers’ longevity and their best bet for a solid future.

That’s why I was struck by the type-written passage displayed in the center of this column. I discovered it shortly after I started working at this newspaper. It was written sometime prior to 1949 by my great-uncle Fred Seaton in a document sent to new publishers of Seaton newspapers. Entitled simply, “Management Procedures,” it presents not only the focus-on-local ethic for which we strive at the Sentinel, it demonstrates clearly that the “value-added” offered by newspapers is credibility — the driving purpose of the editorial process. The vigorous and unending struggle for credibility is our strength, and it provides the basis for why newspapers will be here long after Facebook and Twitter and their progeny are historical asterisks.

These words from the displayed passage will live prominently on my office wall: “That you inevitably will be accused of unfairness in the presentation of the news is not at all pertinent. That you will be innocent of any such charge is!”


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