I really wonder where my beloved domain of community journalism is headed.
We all know why print journalism is like a lobster about to hit the boiling water. When the internet came along, having a website was prestigious and getting people to hit it an ego trip. The newspapers started giving away the stories for which consumers traditionally paid, and didn’t mind doing so.
When consumers get something for nothing, they aren’t likely to start paying for it.
I learned that the hard way when the owners of the minor league baseball team I administered in Glens Falls, N.Y., started giving away tickets in wholesale bunches. Ownership’s theory, since it was in the Burger King business, was that we would cash in at the concession stand; that empty seats don’t buy hot dogs and sodas.
What they didn’t consider is that the price of admission has almost no overhead and once you give it away, people lose respect for the product. Even if you get $1 a ticket, you’re still making consumers open their wallets. The ticket has some value.
Giving tickets away at the bottom of Burger King bags was like saying the game had no value. Giving the hard work of reporters away was like saying their work has no value. People said, “Why should I pay for the paper when I can go on line and get the information free?”
So how did the newspapers compensate for the dramatic downturn in revenue? Did the CEOs take pay cuts. Nooo! They cut back on reporters, cutting off the resource that enticed consumers to subscribe. They froze their wages, sending them to the exits to find better means of using their skills to make a living.
The papers in major cities, while they may be hurting, continue to thrive, but what of the small-city dailies that were the heart and soul of their regions for over 100 years? Some have perished. Others altered their philosophy, choosing to hire so-called reporters at bargain-basement prices and filling their whittled-down publications with the worst kind of trash.
Reporters are now paid paupers’ wages and asked to work well beyond the traditional 40 hours per week. The papers get what they pay for. Many of the new guard are egomaniacs who resort to filling sports sections with stories about THEIR favorite teams and telling readers what THEIR winning percentage is in picking college football games.
Some actually solicit controversy, providing an online forum for anonymous readers to rip on high school coaches and athletes. They publish inane readers’ comments while high school athletes toil in anonymity.
Where does that leave the legitimate need for local information? America On-Line started its Patch websites, which continue to evolve. Folks interested in local news and sports are beginning to understand that Patch is becoming more reliable than the dailies and timelier than the weeklies, although the weeklies certainly have their place. There are some great ones in the region.
Many fine journalists are now working for Patch and doing great jobs in a number of communities. Whether the model that AOL has established can be profitable is yet unknown. Consumers with an interest in local news better hope so. I hope so for the sake of all the terrific writers/reporters who used to populate daily newsrooms and always did their jobs thoroughly.
Some journalists I know have set up their own websites to share information. I wish them well and respect their intentions. Perhaps they can find a way to earn some cash for the time they are putting in. There aren’t enough hours in the day to make a living, write stories and solicit advertising on a medium that seems more difficult to sell, particularly in an economy with businesses failing in alarming numbers.
The bottom line is that the business of community journalism is evolving. It’s likely to continue evolving for years to come, long after I retire my laptop. My concern is that the awesome young athletes who give their hearts and souls for their schools will get proper recognition, not a litany of either no information or misinformation with error-filled reports and misspelled names.