Newspapers dying?: A Knoxville expert begs to differ

Posted by Devin Greaney on Friday, May 28, 2010 

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Kevin Slimp teaches at the October , 2009 

Institute for Newspaper Technology

Every October at the University of Tennessee- Knoxville, Kevin Slimp puts on a two and a half day program, the Institute for Newspaper Technology. This past month when I mentioned I was attending and the words “Newspaper Technology,” a Facebook friend quickly responded “isn’t that an oxymoron?”

In addition to the two and a half day course, he travels for seminars and is one of the most sought after speaker in regards to the future of newspapers.

A lot of conventional wisdom says newspapers are being relegated to the history books. The internet can update rapidly, newspapers take twenty four hours. Newspapers require newsprint, huge presses trucks and people to deliver along with commissions on those vendors and distributors. Bandwidth is much cheaper. And how many stories have we heard of large papers that reported news from the Civil War printing their final editions in the last few years?  Slimp acknowledges newspapers have gone through some rough times, but, to paraphrase former newspaperman Mark Twain, reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.

The Johnson City native, who has lived in Knoxville since 1990, does not believe they are going away anytime soon. As an industry educator he teaches classes on different computer programs, but his talks on the industry’s future attract the most attention. He adds the phrase “no one knows for sure” to temper his predictions.

“Newspapers went through the same thing when radio was introduced and when TV came the same thing happened,” he says. “Of course I don’t know,” he says “I think we are at least twenty years away from the day print issues are totally replaced.”

Newspapers do have their own pluses, he says. And no, it is not just for the retirees. “I was talking to someone- and he was not an old person- who said he is comfortable with reading it at the breakfast table without getting out his computer. Surveys say sixty eight percent of Americans read a newspaper at least once a week.”

The Apple iPad, he believes, will be the next big player in the world of newspapers. “The Wall Street Journal has been very successful in getting paid iPad subscriptions,” he says. And yes,  he said two dirty words in the internet era- paid subscriptions.

“Most newspapers have found a way to charge for their content,” according to Slimp.  “The Associated Press has led the effort to keep people from copying and pasting articles from the AP. It reminds me of the campaign the music industry had a few years ago against Napster.  I am not so sure the newspapers are trying to make money by getting them to subscribe to the website, but to get them to buy the print version.”

There are a several ways he says content can be purchased online. There is a model most similar to the way newspapers have changed over the years where someone pays a subscription. The (Nashville) Tennessean charges $14.95 per month. A  lot of content is available online for free, but behind a paywall every article is available.

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Rob Heller (center, peach-colored shirt) teaches 

a class to journalism professionals

At 4:05 this morning my hometown newspaper, The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal, was delivered to me.

For ten dollars per month, the entire newspaper, page by page, is sent to my email inbox. It is a similar set up to what The Tennessean offers where a lot of articles are available online at no cost but here every word of the morning paper shows up. I can flip pages without getting ink on my fingers.

“There is a pay per view option,” he says. Slimp was looking for a story in Springfield, Illinois and paid $1.50 to read the article. Also many newspapers have archives where articles can be purchased this way, so that article from 1995 can be read at the library microfilms for no cost, or for a fee can be purchased online, saving a trip to the library.

Also he says some publications can charge for their most popular content. “Sports, breaking news and obituaries are popular and other things can be free,” he says.

So how much will the public pay for news?  A trip to the archives gives a bit of historic perspective over the last fifty years showing the change in what people pay for The Commercial Appeal.

In the summer of 1960 newspapers ruled journalism. Yes, television was there but newscasts were only fifteen minutes long.  The newspaper was $.05 for a weekday copy and $2.20 for the month, including the Sunday editions. But looking at the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s online inflation calculator says in 2010 money that newspaper was the equivalent of $.37 and the subscription would be today valued at $16.20.

Ten years later TV news was getting its own identity. Television news had brought us the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam war and men on the moon. Names like Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor and David Brinkley were recognized more than most movie stars. The newspaper was now $.10 ( $.37 in today’s money) and $3.25 per month ($18.26).

July 1, 1980, the paper was $.15 a copy ($.40) and $6.50 or $7.10 per month, depending on the number of Sundays ($17.99). Exactly one month earlier in Atlanta Ted Turner debuted CNN, beginning what would be called the “twenty four hour news cycle.” The world of newspapers had changed rapidly in twenty years, but the changing was far from finished.

By 1990, the newspaper no longer had its afternoon counterpart, the Memphis Press-Scimitar, which published its last edition Halloween, 1983. The daily price had now more than doubled to $.50 ($.83) but in an apparent way to generate subscriptions, the monthly costs increased just a bit more to $12.95 per month  ($21.60).

A decade later we were in a new millennium. The paper now had a website, gomemphis.com, which was registered in February, 1996.  Where the news consumers of 1970 knew Cronkite, Brinkley and Chancellor now Matt Drudge, Arianna Huffington and Joseph Farah were becoming better known by the day, though they were almost by design more controversial than the network newscasters of previous days. As for the newspaper, it was still $.50 ($.63) daily and subscriptions were $17.50 ($22.16).

Today, my online subscription is $10 per month as opposed to $.75 per copy or $20.69 for what some observers call the print, driveway or, more harshly, the “dead tree edition.”

To look at the future of newspapers Slimp suggessts  one place to watch is the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

“The News-Sentinel has been a leader in Tennessee and Scripps, their owner, puts their resources into online and Knoxville is kind of their leader,” he says. “Knoxville is a very high tech city. When you live in Knoxville it has a feel of a very high tech city like Austin, Texas or Boulder, Colorado.”

A huge Jackson Avenue fire in Knoxville on February 7, 2007 was a turning point for newspapers and online journalism. Who won? Newspapers AND online journalism.

“It was credited as the first major story a newspaper jumped on covering it with video and blogs,” he says. The News-Sentinel, according to Slimp, had video on their website faster than the TV stations did.  “They had reporters out there with video cameras,” he says.  But he does not believe photojournalists will be totally replaced. “There are so many artistic things that go into photography you will still have photographers but they will be required to shoot video as well.”

Rob Heller, professor of journalism and public relations at UT Knoxville, also teaches at the Institute for Newspaper Technology and last October taught video as well as still visual storytelling to the attendees. Just as reporters are shooting video, like in the Knoxville fire, photojournalists are also now gathering sound and interviews for video and online slide shows. Going beyond the still image can capture the multifaceted aspects a story either with the movement of video or the power of several still images. The lines between video and still photography, between writers and photographers are further blurring.

He says he is optimistic at the early registrations for his course which will again be held in October at UT Knoxville. “Newspapers have made a comeback this year. During the recession people saw the papers getting thinner but as the economy turns around companies are advertising again,” he says.