Bold, persistent experimentation is needed

Al Cross

Jun 1, 2020


Our country might not be in a depression, but the newspaper business is, and its fatality rate might be as great at that of the new coronavirus. The pandemic and its economic restrictions have accelerated closures and mergers, which have increasingly affected county-seat weeklies, long the most stable type of American newspaper.

The economy is gradually reopening, but with no vaccine or proven treatment, the virus remains a threat, and that threatens a resurgence of COVID-19 cases and more economic reversals. To get through this, newspapers need to prove their value, and they need to try new things.

The pandemic is spawning rivers of misinformation, and if there was ever a time for newspapers to reassert their franchise as the main finders of fact for democracy, this is it. But newspaper staffs must remember to assert that on social media, too, and to remind social-media consumers how those media and newspapers differ.

We must repeatedly explain that news outlets offer journalism, which has a discipline of verification: we emphasize facts, attribute opinion and clearly separate the two. (That separation has eroded lately, and needs shoring up.) Social media have almost no discipline and no verification, so the facts get lost in a sea of opinion and invective, driven by algorithms giving people what they want, not what they need. They need to know that.

Don’t like online arguments? This is a fight for your life, so you should wage it on all fronts. Ask your critics to cite specifics, and when they do, remind them that it’s easy to pick examples of bad journalism from thousands of reports. As someone who got into journalism as a youth baseball scorekeeper and correspondent, I like to say journalism has a fielding percentage about as good as Major League players, around .984. By my reckoning, we’re fair and accurate 49 times out of 50. We do make two-base errors sometimes, but unlike social media and ballplayers, we correct them.

Newspapers’ survival depends on more than trust. Newspapers must provide value, which means good public-service journalism. How do you pay for that when advertising dries up? Community newspapers need to be more aggressive in following their metro counterparts in asking their audiences to provide a greater share of revenue, and they need to be frank with their readers about their paper’s finances.

Newspapers also need explore a source of revenue that’s becoming more common: philanthropy. It’s unlikely that many community papers will have reporters paid by nonprofits or get grants from foundations, but in every county in this country, there are people with money who would like to put it to good use. Many of them would define becoming a sponsor of a newspaper, to help it offer good journalism and stay alive, as a good use of their money.

Perhaps the best example of that is the Foothills Forum, a nonprofit in Rappahanock County, Virginia, that finances high-quality, in-depth journalism for the weekly Rappahannock News. The county has more money and more journalists than average because it’s a little over an hour from Washington, D.C., but its paper has more than four years of experience that could provide guidance for others. We’ve written about it several times on The Rural Blog.

Philanthropists often want to help students, and that includes student journalists. When many University of Missouri journalism students’ internships fell through, faculty members Kathy Kiely and Damon Kiesow created a pop-up newsroom to produce stories for news outlets across the state, with students paid with funds from the school, the Knight Foundation and alumnus Walt Potter. As paid internships have become less common, students are accepting unpaid internships at community papers, and the relationship is mutually beneficial.

Universities can help in other ways. There is scant published research about community newspapers, and state press associations or newspaper groups should get researchers to examine the relationships of community papers and their audiences — including why they are losing readers and how they might get them back.

Another potential source of help is government — not the direct subsidies that are anathema to most journalists, but public–service advertising during the pandemic. In Kentucky, local governments have financed sample–copy editions of weeklies loaded with information about the coronavirus and preventing COVID-19, and there is even more reason to do that now, as we need to take care to prevent a resurgence.

Also, now also might be a good time for a makeover to spur single-copy sales. Think about a magazine format like The Canadian Record in Texas, which runs a compelling color photo on the front with blurbs about major features. It goes for $1.50 a copy, and folks in Hemphill County snap it up because they know it’s good journalism.

Many other ideas are out there in Pub Aux, state press groups and the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors’ online discussion board and monthly newsletter. The May edition had ideas on advertising, covering COVID-19, online journalism, dealing with social media and helping communities get through the crisis.

Ideas are what we need. Not all will work, but our industry is at a juncture much like the bottom of the Great Depression, when presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt called for “bold, persistent experimentation.”

That’s not something for which newspapers are known, especially community papers, but they’d do well to follow it. After all, FDR’s line was written by a newspaper reporter, Ernest K. Lindley of the strongly Republican New York Herald Tribune. When Lindley and other reporters chided him about the lack of zing in his pre-convention remarks, FDR challenged them to draft a speech. “Lindley took the bait,” wrote presidential historian James MacGregor Burns, and bold, persistent experimentation helped save the country. It might save newspapers, too.

Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog at