Most of my working life has been spent in radio and television. So, that’s where I used to get most of my daily news, turning to newspapers in my spare time for more in-depth details. Broadcasting is, most often, immediate. Newspapers are historic. And they may become an historic memory.

A couple of Southern Oregon papers are tied up in their owner’s current bankruptcy proceedings. Which means other local papers in the small Western chain are as well. No print papers I know of are really making money. Those not in financial trouble are just hanging on. And a good number have disappeared in recent years.

To say electronic news delivery – especially the Internet – has led to these dire journalistic conditions is accurate. But only partly so. To say continuation of a national red ink economy is to blame is also correct but, again, only partly. There are other factors. Here are some that come to mind.

There’s been a failure of many papers to move with technology. While some have put up web pages, few have really invested the same resources they do with their print side. Our little local paper has one. A subscription costs about ten bucks a month. That’s on top of what you pay for the print version. The I-Net version has not been a rousing success and our local paper is struggling. Same with a lot of others.

Many well-known newspapers have electronic presences, especially the big ones. Some are successful; some not so. Some charge for e-subscriptions; some don’t. All seem to want a foot in both camps and don’t want to cut the umbilical cord of hardcopy printing. So, resources are divided. That decision is going to have to be faced eventually.

Another anchor on the newspaper business is small ones trying to hang on so each little community has its own. Sort of like the post office. Times are changing. So, too, are the way advertisers spend their money.

Something new is being tried. In several states, you can find small regional papers. Where there used to be several little ones, there is now one; maybe two. Each might be countywide or several counties. Some put in a page or two especially for this community or that. Some don’t. But they’ve attracted some local advertisers that like the regional outreach to more potential customers. What’s published may not be quite as personal – or as local – but is likely to be more economically successful.

And there’s the issue of journalistic quality. These community papers have always been like small radio and TV operations in one way. That’s where the new kids go to get into the business. After a few months or a year of work, they move on to the next larger market. While not a new issue, what’s making it worse now is the lack of basic skills in the newcomers.

Our little local paper is a prime example. Any day. Any page. Errors in spelling. Errors in fact. Errors in editing. Writing so convoluted at times you have to try to figure out the story or skip it. Little stories unimportant to the wider community yet taking up two-thirds of the front page with pictures that add nothing. Same inside. Filling space because of limited staff. Real stories of local politics and business going unreported. So many errors and so many poorly edited pages it becomes an evening chore to get from front to back.

I don’t mean to rag the local people. They face the same problems of lack of dollars to pay better wages to hire more qualified reporters and editors, young people coming in with poor journalistic skills transition through so quickly they can’t be trained, constant pressure on the bottom line, local ad revenues down and declining readership as more people go elsewhere for their local news. If they can find it. Looking at small community papers across the Northwest you see the same situation. And it will get worse.

If I were in the small town print business these days, I‘d closely study the success of The Huffington Post, a completely electronic national newspaper. It’s one I go to everyday. It’s well-edited, filled with information, easy to find what you’re looking for. It publishes no print version. And it’s financially very successful. Though it’s a very large paper, it seems to me some technical and business practices could be scaled down to local size. Especially the commitment to go exclusively electronic. There have to be some corollaries for local publishers.

Bottom line for the small newspapers we read: not all will survive. Those that do will have to commit to a major electronic use of resources or go the way of the buggy whip. I don’t necessarily like it. But it’s a fact.

My first paying job was carrying the Bend Bulletin door to door. Those days are about gone. If newspapers don’t radically change the way they publish, they’ll be gone, too.

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