Marjorie Cortez: Newspapers must follow basics of journalism to survive

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 12 2010 12:01 a.m. MST

Reader alert: Self-serving column to follow.

The last decade was bloody for newspapers. Print ad sales have declined by more than 40 percent since 2005. As a result, newspapers have cut their staffs by about 25 percent, The Associated Press reports. A good many newspapers — some of them Pulitzer Prize winners — stopped publication during this period.

The venerable Rocky Mountain News, which had won four Pulitzer Prizes since 2000, closed on Feb. 27, 2009. Overnight, Denver became a one-newspaper town.

A few days later, I wondered aloud in my column whether the surviving newspaper, The Denver Post, would stay lean and mean without its rival breathing down its neck. The Post, which has multiple Pulitzer Prizes to its credit, too, is doing what all newspapers are doing these days, attempting to do more with less.

At the same time, a new study conducted by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism found that in spite of the multiple platforms to access information these days, the vast majority of actual reporting still comes from the nation's newspapers.

The study of news media in Baltimore found that 95 percent of stories with "new information" came mainly from traditional media, mostly newspapers. What the public learns, whether via podcast, a Web site or news updates sent to it by e-mail or text message, is driven by traditional media — newspapers in particular.

"This study does suggest that if newspapers were to disappear, what would be left to aggregate?" asks Tom Rosenstiel, project director.

These findings raise interesting issues regarding newspapers spending their resources to enrich aggregating sites such as google.com. In our zeal to get the story first and get as many eyeballs on it as possible, newspapers have undervalued the content they have created. Is there a way to make those eyeballs finance the newsgathering?

Unfortunately, feeding a 24/7 news cycle means that in-depth, investigative reporting has fallen victim to a push to get a story on the Web ASAP. The Pew study found numerous instances — far more than in past years — where press releases from politicians, government agencies and businesses were rewritten by multiple news outlets and posted on the Web with little or no additional reporting, The Associated Press reports. That's very troubling.

Another disturbing finding of the study was the toll of layoffs and other budget cuts in terms of producing content. The Baltimore Sun produced 72 percent fewer stories during the first 11 months of 2009 than it did for a like period in 1991.

It is unclear whether the findings of this study are applicable elsewhere in the nation, or for that matter, the entire nation. But it does say that as digital platforms for information proliferate, most original reporting comes from traditional sources — local newspapers, television stations and radio stations. Most digital news outlets are regurgitating the reporting of newspapers, television and radio stations. They often add commentary but provide little new information.

If you think about the history of newspapers, it's not too surprising that they're still the major providers of news — particularly in-depth reporting. Newspapers are scrappy survivors. That's been true since the advent of radio, magazines and television. Digital media are the latest competitor, although we will someday see the demise of most "dead tree" newspapers and be available exclusively on the Web. We will become "them," but we owe it to readers to provide added value. For instance, newspapers will continue to serve the unique role of delivering news in context, something more immediate forms of delivery cannot.

This means following the basics of journalism is more important than ever. Consumers of news need information from a trusted news source. The delivery methods will continue to evolve, but considering the worldwide audience that a local news story can potentially reach, all must strive to report as accurately and fairly as possible.

Marjorie Cortez, a reformed Luddite who prefers reading a newspaper of the dead tree variety while eating her breakfast (it soaks up the spilled milk from her Cheerios better than her laptop), is a Deseret News editorial writer. E-mail her at marjorie@desnews.com.

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