In a recent newspaper editorial, the editor titled his piece, “News has to go digital or go home.” I think he needed to change that to “Newspapers have to become more relevant or expect a well-deserved death.”
Going digital, while a necessary step, is certainly not the answer to what’s wrong with newspapers. The digital era has offered an additional means of delivery for papers, but it is their look and content, which haven’t changed in over 85 years, that is presently killing them. Newspapers, like everything else, have to change with the times.
I was at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in the early seventies, studying Radio-Television-and-Motion Pictures, when everyone was predicting the death of Hollywood and the film industry because television was having such a heyday. Theaters were closing, studios that had been producing theatrical films switched to television, unemployment in the film industry was at an all-time high. Then George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, two independent filmmakers, came along and re-taught the industry how to make movies.
The newspaper industry just needs to re-learn how to do newspapers. Comics, horoscopes, crossword puzzles, “Dear Abby” and columnists with homespun humor may have worked in the 1930s; but in the age of graphic novels, 3D movies and video games, readers expect more.
When I was editor of my high school newspaper, I wanted it to be more than just a four-page cheering section for the athletic teams and student council. I wanted it to be a news magazine that was relevant to kids who were also reading Playboy and Seventeen. So I expanded the format to eight pages, filled it with photo essays and columnists, and increased our readership and advertising, with the help of my advertising manager. For one brief year, the Lenoir High Mountaineer was something more than just your typical high school newspaper.
Don’t get me wrong: I think the current editorial staff of the News Topic is doing a terrific job. But I hope they don’t think that the next level is simply going digital. I hope they envision a paper whose very look and content is different from what my grandparents read. We’re not just living in a digital age. We’re living in an age where, if you’re not relevant in your look and content, you’re yesterday’s news.