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Guest Editorial

Newspapers must embrace change to remain vital

Many of the editors, publishers and owners of America's biggest newspapers seem shocked that they have lost readers and ad dollars to the Internet. They blame young people for not reading and lament the Web sites they accuse of stealing their readers, never once realizing that arrogance has made them expendable, not technology.

They make these assertions after spending decades with their heads buried in the sand assuming that things would stay the way they always had. In the pre-Internet days, while newspapers lost customers to television, they still dominated the printed word and a heavy demand remained for what they sold.

Today, however, words no longer reside solely on paper and people have a lot more choices. Perhaps equally important, the needs and interests of readers have changed. The sensible newspaper companies out there have realized this and have reinvented themselves as purveyors of a hyper-local product featuring stories about their community that go well beyond what was traditionally considered news.

Good local newspapers no longer have to offer a little bit of everything, because most things are readily available to readers online or in the major national and regional papers available. That does not, however, mean that newspapers as we know them will disappear, it simply means that to survive, local papers must change to meet the times.

Change and newspapers, however, does not generally go hand in hand as many of the people who work at newspapers have realized that 2008 doesn't look a lot different from 1973. And while it's tempting to place all the blame on corporate ownership, the reality is newsroom personnel must shoulder much of the responsibility.

Editors and reporters should lead the charge in creating newspapers that serve their readers. Certainly many newsrooms have been victims of short-sited personnel cuts that make this task difficult, but editors must better use the resources they have left. Serving readers means providing what they want, what they don't know they want and what they can't get anywhere else.

Unfortunately, the typical newsroom's view of news often differs greatly from what might actually cause a younger reader - or someone who does not generally buy a newspaper - to plunk down their 50 cents. Too many editors and reporters still believe that the only news that matters comes from City Hall, Planning and Zoning Commission meetings and the same variety of meetings that newspapers have covered since their inception.

While real news may happen at these meetings, generally minutia from the Charter Revision Committee meeting or intimate details of what the Board of Education discusses holds little appeal outside the newsroom. People care about whether a new business will open up downtown and whether the school's needs might cause taxes to go up, not how these things happen.

There's a place for covering the traditional stuff, but there also must be a place for a new kind of journalism that focuses on people, why things happen and what might happen next. Local audiences want to know what they might be able to do on the weekend, where they might take there kids and how they might improve their lives.

A story about the mayor announcing a new initiative counts as news, but so does the high school drama club announcing dates for its new production. Politics, scandal and serious subjects have a place in the paper, but so do people, lifestyle issues and lighthearted fare.

If local papers want to survive, their editors and publishers have to understand that the days where every small town paper strives to be the New York Times have passed. Quality news coverage of a community requires leaving the newsroom; going out into that community and without cynicism or skepticism finding out what the people want from their newspaper.

A lot of good papers exist and the fact that you're reading this suggests that you might be holding one. Still, if editors, reporters and publishers want their jobs to continue to exist, they must lead the charge and they must accept change.

Daniel B. Kline's work appears in over 100 papers weekly. His new book, a collection of columns, Easy Answers to Every Problem, can be ordered at Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com. Daniel B. Kline can be reached at dan@notastep.com.

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