Hey, readers: The future of newspapers is in your hands

As I write this, the newsroom is eerily quiet. The only noises I hear come from an occasional fax printing and a whirring desk fan. As I look around, I see piles of newspapers, black computer screens and empty chairs. Not a soul around.

This could be a scene from a Stephen King movie, where some plague or monster has wiped out a newsroom. In reality, it's just a typical late evening at the Tucson Weekly's offices.

But as I look at the blank screens and unoccupied chairs, I can't help but think about newly vacant newsrooms around the country. It's almost as if some Stephen King-esque creature is taking them out one by one: Denver's Rocky Mountain News—exterminated; the Seattle Post-Intelligencer—print copies eliminated; Texas' Floresville Chronicle-Journal—annihilated.

And let's not forget our own Tucson Citizen. As of this writing, the Gannett monster has left its poor employees hanging as the paper exists somewhere between life and death.

For certain newspapers still publishing, horror-flick terms are common. The New York Times cut salaries by 5 percent. The Charlotte Observer sliced about 15 percent of its workforce. And the Atlanta-Journal Constitution slashed 30 percent of its full-time news staff.

Pundits point to several reasons for print-media problems—poor management practices, a bad economy, financial carelessness and the Internet.

The Internet didn't really exist back in the late 1970s when I got my first glimpse at a newsroom. Even though it was through my television screen, the fictitious Los Angeles Tribune newsroom on Lou Grant looked like a magical place where people worked to tell the truth, make a difference and change the world. I remember watching the reporters, thinking, "How cool would it be to do that?"

Today, I drive down dusty Tucson roads with a pad of paper and a recorder by my side, off to meet the people in our town. I tell stories and disseminate information with the goal of touching a reader's mind, heart or even funny bone. To me, that's the magic and power of the printed word.

Now our printed words are moving to the Internet with lightning speed. It's easy to click through a news story. But what of the newsprint on your fingertips? The crinkle of the paper as you turn it? The catchy headline that grabs you? And the beautifully placed photo on the page? Are those wonderfully earthy features of a printed newspaper coming to an end?

Tell me you don't have a fond memory of being in the paper—whether it was for scoring a touchdown, winning a contest or acting in the school play. Who has a fond memory of being on the Internet for the first time? A newspaper is just more appealing.

My love affair with the printed page aside, nostalgia can't carry us along. Statistics paint a dark picture—but there are signs of light on the horizon.

First up, from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, posted in June 2008: "A new report issued by The Media Audit reveals that 43.8 million adults have read an alternative newsweekly ... in the past 30 days. The study ... reveals an average readership of 374,296 adults in 2007 compared to 362,938 in the previous year, a 3 percent increase."

Late last month, the Newspaper Revitalization Act was introduced by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. The act would allow newspapers to restructure as nonprofits, thereby obtaining tax-exempt status. Financial benefits are evident, but being classified as a 501(c)(3) forbids engagement in political activities, such as candidate endorsements.

There may not be enough support for this bill due to editorial restrictions, but at least steps are being taken to possibly help the industry. If government can bail out greedy bankers and insurance companies, why not help out journalists and an industry that is truly an institution?

A pro-newspaper event called National Buy a Newspaper Day took place on Feb. 2. Created by Chris Freiberg, a reporter for Alaska's Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the day was a reminder to go down to your local newsstand, grocery store or school, and pick up the paper. Reading online didn't count.

This type of grassroots effort appeals to me, because it's something all of us can do. From our humble abodes, we newspaper readers can't instantly control what happens in Washington, D.C., or how newspaper companies manage the bottom line.

But we can pick up a paper, sit at our kitchen table or local café, and read it. We can take in the words and images on the printed page and learn about our neighbors and the world. And from that enlightened perspective, the future of newspapers can be in everyone's hands.

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