Who Needs Newspapers?

May 31, 2011

trash can on street with stacks of newspapers next to it

Photo by Troy Holden

May 31, 2011

By Menachem Wecker

If Paul Steinle, former president of United Press International, was writing a story about journalism’s future, he would avoid the title, “Newspapers are dying.”

“I don’t think that’s a correct headline,” said Mr. Steinle in a recent interview with Mark Hamrick, an Associated Press broadcast journalist and president of the National Press Club, on the radio program This Just In! The program, hosted by Sam Litzinger, is co-produced by GW, the National Press Club and the Newseum and is underwritten by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation

Mr. Steinle, who was joined on the program by his wife Sara Brown, said the title he prefers is, “Newspapers are in a transformational state.

“Could they die? Yes, they might die,” he said. “But they are not taking the diagnosis lying down. They are really fighting.”

Mr. Steinle and Dr. Brown, a former vice president of human resources at The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash., participated in an event at the National Press Club on May 23 titled “Who Needs Newspapers?” and co-sponsored by the club’s Eric Friedheim National Journalism Library and GW’s Global Media Institute.

Their project of the same name, which employs 19 associate consulting editors, has sent them to 44 newspapers in 44 states to study the future of journalism. Mr. Steinle and Dr. Brown intend to visit another six papers.

According to the project website, Who Needs Newspapers? has three goals: provide the newspaper industry with new information about best and worst practices, clarify the value of local papers and share helpful advice for students who are aspiring journalists.

“You don’t necessarily know how newspapers run until you spend some time with them,” said Mr. Steinle, a former broadcaster, who first ran a 2009 event on the future of newspapers when he was associate provost at Southern Oregon University.

“I wondered if the public really appreciates where this information is coming from,” he said. “It’s a facetious question. The idea is that yes at the end of the day we see why we need them. But it was a fun title and people remembered it.”

He and Dr. Brown decided to buy a trailer and a truck and go around the country to report on the subject. Though they kept hearing that newspapers were dying, Mr. Steinle was skeptical. “When I started teaching in 1991 everybody told me newspapers were about to die,” he said. “Somehow by 2010 they hadn’t died yet, and that made me think there is more subtly to this story.”

Mr. Steinle and Dr. Brown divide their responsbilities while on the road. Mr. Steinle makes contact with the state press association and serves as the cameraman. Dr. Brown conducts the interviews and follows up with the newspapers to make sure they respond to a questionnaire with information like their circulation, software, staffing and the five to 10 stories of which they are most proud. Mr. Steinle edits the videos, and their son-in-law, who is based in Portland, Ore., is the webmaster. Mr. Steinle also drives the truck, while Dr. Brown cooks, does the laundry and walks the dog.

According to Dr. Brown, just about every paper the couple has visited has reduced its staff, but nearly all the editors said having to make tough decisions required them to focus on what they do best, which tends to be local news. The editors frequently said the economy has made them more efficient, Dr. Brown said.

But despite the optimistic signs Dr. Brown and Mr. Steinle have found along the way, they are both aware of their limitations. “Our job is not to save newspapers. I wish we could. I don’t think that’s possible,” Mr. Steinle said.