Myth: Newspapers are no longer relevant

May 24, 2010

By Neil S. Brown, editor, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times

Next week well over 110 million people in the United States will read some or all of the Sunday newspaper. Maybe they will enjoy the comics, or work the crossword. Maybe they’ll pore over a local investigative report and be hooked enough to go to the web site and look at a video related to the story. Maybe they’ll shout their displeasure at the paper’s editorial on health care or a local zoning matter and even be outraged enough to write a letter to the editor. Maybe they’ll study a baseball box score, put a local restaurant review up on their fridge or notice a shoe sale at the local department store.

Many cost-conscious newspaper readers will clip coupons from the Sunday paper. And the coupons will get used. In fact, about three-fourths of all coupons used in the United States come out of a newspaper.

When relevance is calculated purely by numbers, there’s little doubt the newspaper industry – while smaller and less profitable than it once was – remains utterly relevant in the lives of many Americans. Ask the 335,000 people (and thousands of family members) who rely on a paycheck from the 1,400 daily, 900 Sunday and 6,000 weekly newspapers. Or here’s a relevant number: $27 billion. That is what businesses, large and small, spent last year in advertising in newspapers and their web sites to reach people in all geographies, from all walks of life.

Newspapers have been challenged in unprecedented ways by the tenacious recession that has sent businesses reeling, substantially eroded advertising dollars, and led to job layoffs. The blame is often laid on the technological evolution that has provided consumers with so many new -- and often free – ways to spend their time. Yet while those new options (and economic hard times) cut so deeply into the advertising money needed to bankroll operations, newspapers remain pertinent in American life because the public is desperate for their number one asset: credible and useful information. How else to explain that Sunday newspaper readership is greater today than it was 10 years ago, or that the number of people visiting a newspaper web site this past February is 5 million more than the same time a year ago?

Shrinking advertising dollars in economic tough times? Indeed. Shrinking audience? That’s a myth.

But the power and reach of a newspaper is defined by so much more than statistics.

When a small newspaper in Las Vegas published stories about a startling number of deadly on-the-job accidents at the construction site of a major new casino-condo development, the workers stopped dying.

A Milwaukee newspaper uncovered that Wisconsin had so little oversight of its child care system that some day-care facilities were actually fronts for drug dealers, that child abusers and other criminals were licensed as child care workers and that millions in taxpayer dollars were lost on phony or inferior centers. The stories led to indictments and a new system of regulation.

When a Florida newspaper told the story of a little girl who had been kept in a closet and virtually starved by her abusive mother for the first seven years of her life, and the family who courageously adopted her, readers contributed thousands of dollars to help. Oprah Winfrey saw the story and took the family into her fold.

And then there is this timeless relevance: a mom called up a local newspaper the other day asking for extra copies of the neighborhood section, which listed the winners of a local high school tennis tournament. With sheer glee, she explained: “My son’s name was in the paper!”

Neil S. Brown, editor, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times