Thursday, December 11, 2014

Lessons learned, and same as it ever was





When the first editions of USA Today hit the streets in the fall of 1982, I was taking my first college journalism classes. Many of my professors in J-school made fun of it — initially.
Al Neuharth, chairman of Gannett at the time, and the father of "Nations's paper," recalled a less-than-warm reception.
"Most media critics brushed us off quickly. Linda Ellerbee, then a popular late-night news commentator on NBC, paraphrased our "non-smudge" ink promotion with this sarcastic comment: "USA TODAY doesn't rub off on your hands or your mind." Many critics compared us to McDonald's, as the "fast food of journalism."
Neuharth, however was vindicated and the paper, by its 30th birthday, had the largest print circulation in the country and second largest total circulation at 1,817,446 (1,701,777 print and 115,669 digital). It trailed "The Wall Street Journal's"  2,118,315 (1,566,027 print and 552,288 digital) at the time.
As Neuharth noted in 2012, "The fact is more people across the USA and around the world want more news and information today than ever before. They also want it in different ways — in print, on the air, on the Web. As long as news providers give it to them when they want it, where they want it and how they want it, they not only will survive but also thrive. That includes newspapers, if they also adapt to new ways of distributing the news, which they generally gather more professionally than any other media."
Always, there is the struggle for relevance. In the San Juans of Colorado (where I grew up) the arrival of a newspaper meant the town had also arrived. Creede, for example, in the 1890s started out with four newspapers. Telluride had as many six papers operating in the heyday. And locally, there was as many as seven different papers practicing the craft in Cripple Creek District, at least two of them as daily publications. But, just as today, nothing is guaranteed. 
"Rico, for instance, during the first twenty years of its life had ten different newspapers, only one lasting longer than six years, " notes John L. Ninneman and Duane Smith in their recent book "San Juan Bonanza."
Mining areas, though desperate for service provided by a newspaper, often struggled for the technology to catch up. Boomtown Fairbanks in Alaska, with about 1,000 people, and only 387 houses either finished or in the process of construction, six saloons, and no churches in 1903, had one of the most expensive newspapers in the world at the time, at $5 per copy for "The Fairbanks Miner."
The editorial policy of The Fairbanks Miner was straightforward, wrote Terrance Cole in his book "E.T. Barnnette" about the founder of Fairbanks.
"Published occasionally at Fairbanks, Alaska, by a stampeder who is waiting for the snow to melt and the ice to go out in the rivers... If you don't like our style, fly your kite and produce your 30-30,"  wrote Judge James Wickersham, who started the "Miner" to raise cash to finance a trip to climb Mt. McKinley. Wickersham and a public stenographer named G. Carlton Woodward, who had brought a small Empire green-ribboned typewriter with him from Dawson in Yukon territory, typed the entire issue. They made seven copies, and three were put in the saloons and one was mailed to Senator Charles Fairbanks. Only one issue of "The Fairbanks Miner" was published because the ice went out, just as they were going to press. 
The landscape for newspaper survival outside the mining districts was not much better.
The first newspaper in Monument was established by A.T. Blachly in 1878, and called the "Mentor." It only lasted until 1880, but the Monument Journal picked up the torch  briefly. By 1885, another paper, called the El Paso County Register was going and survived until 1889. In 1890, another publication, the "Monument Recorder" lasted less than a year, but about the same time, the "Monument Messenger" arrived and lasted until 1911.  A replacement didn't hit the scene again until "Preacher Sam," who lived near Monument Lake created the "Lake View Press" in the 1950s. The "Columbine Herald" appeared on the scene about the same time. Then in the 1960s, our forerunner, the Monument Palmer Lake News, which later included the Woodmoor News, was first published by George Kobolt of Castle Rock. This year, we will celebrate our 50th year.
Critics of print in general, and our paper specifically, brush us off as relic of some not-to-distant past. They talk of a bygone era where the country editor might lead varied life, with useful knowledge in every subject,  good debater, good listener, and instructive talker; generous to the limit of his ability.
"He had been from devil up to pressman in a printing office," wrote M.V. Atwood in "The Country Newspaper" describing this individual. 
"He could sweep floors; clean cuspidors, set type; make up forms; run job press, cylinder, stitcher, binder, or engine; could repair them all if they got out of order; could write news, or editorial; correct proof; and sell papers on the street. He learned all he knew in the office. The modern efficiency and 'specializing' methods have eliminated this relic of olden times, but there is just as much to be learned in the printing office, as there was then," wrote Atwood in 1923.
Don't count us out in the innovation arena, and be careful of, and perhaps show respect for, the idea that there is just as much to be learned in the local paper today— as there ever has been.
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