A View from the Hill: It’s the journalism, stupid

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In early January, Masthead Maine announced that as of March 2 it would stop printing the Monday edition of several of its newspapers, including the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel, Kennebec Journal, and Lewiston Sun Journal, and send readers online for Monday’s news.

Can’t blame them. There are few ads on Mondays, and a business can’t run for long on fumes. Eliminating the cost of printing and distributing the Monday paper will free up some cash that can be spent on news gathering, the company said. We’ll see.

This is happening all over the country as the industry struggles to survive, often unsuccessfully. Nearly 1,800 local newspapers have shut down since 2004, creating “news deserts” across the land. Of metro newspapers in the U.S., 17 have been shuttered since 2007.

It’s tough out there.

“They’re not making new daily print newspaper subscribers any more,” writes Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Lab at Harvard University, “and existing ones either move to digital or shuffle off this mortal coil daily.”

The situation in Maine is particularly interesting, because nearly all the state’s daily newspapers and many of its weeklies are under the umbrella of Masthead Maine. If this company were to fail, Maine would become a huge news desert. Nobody wants that. Most of us know that good journalism keeps our government honest and allows us to know what is going on in the world, the country, the community.

So it’s important to look at this challenge in the same way we look at the climate crisis. Where will we be one or two decades down the road, and how can we mitigate the damage to journalism along the way? And more importantly, how quickly are we willing to start the hard work?

By “we” I mean all of us, because journalism needs to survive as a foundation of our society, whatever happens to the news industry.

So what does that future look like? Well, for one it looks very digital. According to the Pew Research Center, 34 percent of adults in the U.S. would rather get their news online via websites, apps, or (gulp) social media. While 44 percent of Americans prefer to get what they think is news from their TVs, when it comes to local news 37 percent say they prefer to get their news online. The vast majority say the internet is important in their local news consumption, according to Pew.

OK, so the future is digital. No surprise. That’s where Masthead Maine suggests their Monday readers go. Masthead is just dipping a toe in the water compared to what the Little Rock, Arkansas, Democrat-Gazette is doing. After canceling all print editions except Sunday, they’ve been giving out iPads – 27,000 so far – set up with the newspaper’s apps.

Aspirin for shotgun wounds? Time will tell. So far, iPad versions of newspapers range from hopeless to squirelly. I’ve encountered long, hopelessly garbled paragraphs in stories in the Press Herald mobile app. The elegant app from The Washington Post crashes frequently. Readers encountering these and other issues, like constantly being asked for passwords so they can get past the firewall, will quickly lose patience.

Other organizations are going down the nonprofit road. The Salt Lake Tribune in Utah is attempting such a transformation. For years the nonprofit Poynter Institute has published the Tampa Bay Times. The Guardian offers all its news free and only asks for donations from its readers. I’ve often thought the Press Herald would make a wonderful nonprofit journalism laboratory. 

Journalism is social capital. It belongs to all of us, for the betterment of all of us. We need to support efforts to keep it healthy, and not turn our backs on it as it struggles to survive. This requires bold, creative thinking, not baby steps.

In the film “Yesterday,” a solar event wipes out some memories for all but a few earthlings. The main character keeps his memory and, despite a lack of musical talent, is able to achieve fame and fortune by pirating the work of The Beatles.

In one exchange, the performer, Jack Malik, says to his friend, Rocky, “It’s times like these I wish I hadn’t given up smoking. I could murder a cigarette.

“Yeah,” Rocky says. “What’s a cigarette?”

Makes me wonder what would happen if some of our foundational institutions, like art or journalism, were to get wiped from our consciousness. How would forgetting everything change everything? What would emerge?

What would journalism become if we were no longer constrained by the weight of its history?

As Rocky would say, “What’s journalism?”

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist, and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.