Robert Bennett: Why the U.S. still needs newspapers

Published: Monday, Aug. 12 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

A woman reads an extra issue of a Japanese newspaper at Ginza district in Tokyo Monday, Dec. 19, 2011.

Associated Press

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When you write a column, you have people come up to you at various times and in various places to tell you what they think of what you have to say — not unlike my experience as a politician, when I was fair game for all kinds of comments from constituents. However, there is one distinctive difference. Almost every comment I get that is prefaced with "I read your column on —" comes from someone who is over 50. The demographic profile of newspaper readers is getting older every day.

I see it in my own family. I have children and grandchildren who don't subscribe to or read newspapers. They get their information from viewing various blogs, YouTube videos, posts on Facebook or by Googling Wikipedia. As the country's population has grown, newspaper readership has not and revenues have plummeted.

I still read newspapers because I grew up with them. They were my first and predominant source of information about the outside world. When something really important happened, they produced "extra" editions, with blaring headlines rushed out on the street by newsboys shouting to passersby, "Extra! Extra! Japan Surrenders! Read all about it!" When I wanted information about a particular historical detail, I would call the paper's library.

There are reasons to mourn the decline of print journalism, and not just because of nostalgia. Unlike most blogs, newspapers are organized around a team of reporters who have the capacity to dig into a story, follow it over a fairly long period of time and then synthesize it in carefully edited final reports. The Watergate scandal comes to mind.

"Oh, no problem," some college students recently told Bob Woodward, the lead reporter on that story. "If it happened today, we could just Google it." What would the students find at Google? The original break in happened in 1972 and Nixon didn't resign until 1974; it took months and years for the story to unfold. The combination of investigatory expertise and patience found at a good newspaper is unavailable in the virtual world.

That's why I still read newspapers, but, I confess, often electronically on my tablet, where, along with the Salt Lake papers, I read The New York Times (voice of the left), The Wall Street Journal (voice of the right) and The Washington Post (hometown paper in the nation's capitol). Grazing through various stories while holding a paper is somehow more pleasant than doing it while holding a tablet, but I recognize that the days of home delivery are probably numbered.

This reflection has been triggered by the announcement that The Washington Post has been sold to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and No. 15 on the Forbes Magazine list of America's billionaires. The price was $250 million, amazingly high for a money-losing newspaper. The Boston Globe was recently sold to another billionaire for $70 million. (The New York Times paid $1.1 billion for it just a few years ago.)

Bezos has said that there will be no noticeable changes at The Post, but that over time they will have to intelligently reinvent the newspaper business to align it with the realities of the virtual world. He has enough money to tide him over as he works on that, and I wish him success.

The tradition of in-depth reporting, together with careful fact checking by experienced editors, needs to be maintained. Newspapers have been far from perfect in these areas, but their record has been better than that of most of the blogs that now claim the attention of the younger generation. Let's hope they survive in some form.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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