Optimism amid the gloom

Published 11:34 am Saturday, September 17, 2011

The growing doom and gloom about the newspaper industry — much of it, incredibly, from editors and publishers themselves — demands a response.

I pondered moving this column to the front page to counteract a front-page column from the editor of the region’s daily newspaper last Sunday. What set out to be an explanation of some upcoming changes to that newspaper read more like a doctor’s diagnosis of a fatal illness.

Depressing reading on a Sunday morning.

The editor was undoubtedly sincere about the problems his newspaper faces, but such pessimism might lead readers to sweeping conclusions about the industry generally and specific other newspapers that they read.

I offer a different perspective.

Having spent much of this week with publishers of community newspapers throughout the South, I return home to Franklin this weekend buoyed, not discouraged — my optimism affirmed by colleagues from small towns spanning from Texas to Virginia. Community journalism is as relevant as ever.

Are there challenges? Absolutely. I don’t know of a business in any sector that’s not challenged by the current economy. Like others throughout the private sector, our staff is doing more work with fewer people. We are a team of multitaskers, not specialists.

Are reader preferences evolving away from the printed newspaper? Yes, but that’s been happening for more than a decade.

Yet, The Tidewater News has more readers than ever. We just use multiple platforms to deliver the news. Some readers prefer the print edition. Others prefer to read it on their desktop computer. Still others read us on their smartphones.

Thanks to technology and the efforts of an incredibly hard-working, productive staff, some 30,000 people read our products on the average day. Five years ago, that number was less than 15,000.

As technology develops, even more delivery platforms will emerge. Others will go away.

Will the printed newspaper disappear at some point? Probably, though not in my lifetime, at least if the Baby Boomers have anything to say about it.

Citizens’ appetite for news and information hasn’t waned a bit. In fact, it’s growing.

Unlike the big-city newspapers, which peddle a commodity, community newspapers deliver information, both in print and electronically, that isn’t available elsewhere. As long as we’re flexible with the ways we deliver it and respond to evolving consumer preferences, demand for community news will always be strong.

Maybe one day after I’m dead and gone, they won’t call us a newspaper anymore, but The Tidewater News will be actively engaged in community journalism just like it’s been for more than a century. Of that, I’m more convinced than ever — no matter what the pessimists have to say.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.