By: Charles Madigan, editor. Publisher: Ivan R. Dee, 256 pages, $26.

Review: A mostly gloomy prognosis about the future of newspaper journalism, but a must-read if you care about newspapers.

End of story?

  • Article by: Robert Franklin, Special To The Star Tribune
  • September 7, 2007 - 5:13 PM

Jokesters at the Philadelphia Inquirer once herded a circus camel into an elevator and lifted it up to the fifth-floor newsroom to celebrate a reporter's homecoming from the Middle East.

That's nothing. Today, at virtually every big-city American paper, there's an elephant in the newsroom. It's the question of print media's survival in the face of lost advertising, circulation, news space and jobs.

"-30- The Collapse of the Great American Newspaper" is a compendium of 15 mostly gloomy views of what's happening, what can be done about it and why you should care about newspapers -- or about how you get news at all.

For local interest, there are views about present and former owners of the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. They include the question from ex-Twin Citian David Carr, writing in the New York Times: Will the Strib's new owners be "bottom feeders or benefactors"?

Editor Charles Madigan, a wonderful writer and former Chicago Tribune columnist, and the other authors present disparate views, but a few things seem clear from this book and from my own half-century in print journalism:

• Economic troubles of newspapers are both real and imagined. Profits are headed south in the face of Internet competition, and some newspapers even have lost money. But papers have been wildly profitable, and, as professor and researcher Philip Meyer writes in his own book excerpted by Madigan, "The problem is that there is no easy way to get from a newspaper industry used to 20 to 40 percent margins to one that is content with 6 or 7 percent."

• Great journalism doesn't flow from nonjournalist, profit-driven investors. Reporters "wonder whether their editors have sold out journalistic values for business ones," says Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of the Portland Oregonian. Indeed, in many cases, they have.

• Whether newspapers survive makes a difference far beyond jobs lost and readers inconvenienced. Only newspapers have the infrastructure -- 300 journalists at the Star Tribune alone -- for in-depth coverage of news that helps shape the civic agenda.

The book's statistics are grim. Only 37 percent of U.S. adults said that they read a newspaper daily in 2000, down from 53 percent a decade earlier, and only 20 percent of adults under 35 read now.

The authors' list of causes is long and varied, including Internet competition for readers and ads; sleepy owners who didn't invest in research and development; big money, tax laws and disinterest that prompted journalism families to sell out (the book was produced before the sale of the Wall Street Journal was announced); boring stories; failure to reach out to young readers, and left-leaning reporters who (gasp!) went to college.

Also, owners trying to cut their way to profitability, of course. "As papers become increasingly shallow and niggardly, they lose their essentiality to their readers and their communities," says Gene Roberts, whose Philadelphia Inquirer won 17 Pulitzer Prizes during his 18 years of editorship there.

Papers are trying all kinds of solutions, including investing in the wonderful things the Web can do and going hyper-local. Other ideas include finding owners (individuals or foundations) whose passion is journalism. The New York Times even hired a futurist.

But the most interesting ideas come from journalism Prof. David T.Z. Mindich, who argues that solutions lie outside the newsroom and must "create a society in which young people feel that reading quality journalism is worthwhile."

Mindich would require more TV news programming, including some for kids. If he ran the world, he'd also diversify newspaper and broadcast ownership, test civic knowledge on college-entrance exams and promote "meaningful" politics and the teaching of quality journalism. "There is even evidence that, despite conventional wisdom, quality sells," he writes.

Working journalists would like to think so, even though their number at U.S. dailies shrinks by 3 percent per year. But 51,000 of them remain; they are a resilient lot, and I believe they will be around for a long time because their skills are vital.

In four decades locally, we've seen the merger of papers in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, changes in ownership, multiple rounds of layoffs, the closing of the three foreign bureaus of the pre-merger Minneapolis Tribune, consolidation of advertisers such as department stores and banks, decision-making by focus groups, the rise of fluff stories and more top-down management.

Still, we have journalists who are dedicated to telling readers the most important, most interesting stories of the day. And, especially in such cases as a bridge collapse or a regional flood, their work is incomparable.

Robert Franklin retired in March after 39½ years with the Star Tribune as a reporter and editor. He is a senior adjunct journalism instructor at the University of St. Thomas.

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