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Thursday, November 30, 2023
Nov. 30, 2023

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Press Talk: Difficult times at newspapers

By , Columbian Editor

Life in the newspaper biz has never been easy.

Even in the best of times — if you’re a journalist — you’ll have about half of readers not liking what you’ve written.

If you add in the financial struggles most newspapers are dealing with today, you have this cocktail mix that no one in our industry likes.

That mix bubbled over this week when we had to let go of some talented journalists. Others here at The Columbian also lost their jobs, and their personal hurt is just as real as those in our newsroom.

The public has always had a fascination with newsrooms. Books have been written about us, movies have been made about us, and today’s social media simply can’t stop talking about us.

For better or for worse, love us or hate us, people have an opinion.

About us.


Before I get into my view on why we are where we are, it’s important to note the value of the journalists we just lost.

I’ve seen too many stories — after a downsizing at a newspaper — talk about how readers will barely notice the difference. Sure, we will scramble and adjust and try to create as little adverse impact as possible for our readers. But make no mistake, there will be an impact.

Any time you lose people who have given value to their jobs, you will lose that value when they are gone. That’s the hard reality. I am grateful for everything these journalists have given to The Columbian. They will be missed. And they will be looking for new jobs.

Even journalists still at newspapers are actively exploring other options. Why? In addition to the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring, there is a boatload more money out there in public information jobs.

You need look no further than local governments, for example, to see an array of former journalists who are making $70,000 a year or more in public information jobs. You’re looking at about $35,000 to $45,000 for many journalists at newspapers our size.

Truth is, I couldn’t be happier for former journalists who are doing well. It was their newsroom training that helped land them their jobs. One really can’t get better training than learning the ropes as a journalist.

What’s not at play?

When news comes out that a newspaper is cutting jobs, our harshest critics are not far behind. They have always been there, even before social media was a thing. The only difference today is, social media has given them a louder voice.

But before I get into why newspapers are in a financial struggle, it’s important to address what’s not at play.

We’re too liberal: We actually get about the same number of complaints that we’re too conservative as we do that we’re too liberal. But liberals tend to be less bombastic. The too-liberal charge — factually — can’t be supported here. We editorially endorse about the same number of conservatives as we do liberals.

Press Talk is too liberal: I’m an equal opportunity headbanger and take on both liberals and conservatives. I’ve tangled with liberals like state Rep. Jim Moeller and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt as well as conservative county Councilors David Madore and Tom Mielke.

Recently I’ve commented more on Madore and Mielke, but they recently have been in the news more. We don’t create the news they’re in; they create the news. We report on it. I often comment on it.

And, by the way, columnists commenting on news have been around as long as newspapers.

Reporters’ coverage: Critics also will charge that reporters are directed to cover things in a way that supports the paper’s editorial opinions. That’s silly. Find a reporter — past or present — who would agree with this claim. Truth is, reporters are quite an independent bunch. Almost all of what they write is generated from their ideas. And the few story suggestions they may receive have nothing to do with editorial agendas.

What is at play?

First, this financial issue is not just a Columbian problem. It’s an industrywide problem. It’s important to note this, because it eliminates this claim that if only we’d be more conservative, all would be well. Unless there is a grand conspiracy on a national level to act against conservatives, there is something else at play.

Internet advertising: When the internet happened, a crisis was born for newspapers. Before, advertisers had limited options. They had newspapers and, to a lesser degree, television and radio. As the internet took hold, advertisers suddenly had unlimited options. Let’s say an advertiser had $1,000 to spend. In the old days, $700 would go to newspapers and $300 would go to television. Today, that same $1,000 could be split by giving $100 to newspapers, $100 to television and $800 to 50 different websites. Yes, a newspaper website would get a piece of those web dollars, but the result is, we’ve traded dollars for dimes.

Internet news: More and more people today are getting their news off websites. Newspapers also are delivering news on the internet, but we continue to struggle to get readers to pay for it. Most internet users are used to getting information for free and are reluctant to pay.

Lifestyles: More than anything — in my view — there has been an enormous sea change in the way so many of us live our lives. We are losing our need to be part of our larger community. I call it the missing front porch dynamic. In the old days, our front porches were our gathering places. We’d all hang out there, watch our neighbors walking down the street and get to know each other. But then sitting on front porches disappeared. We began to prefer backyards with fences. Suddenly, our neighbors weren’t as important. We were becoming isolationists. And — yes — the internet enhanced this isolationism. We no longer have to go out to the movies, we no longer have to go out to work, we no longer have to go out to the grocery store, and we no longer believe getting involved with our elected officials will change their minds on anything.

And what does this have to do with newspapers, with The Columbian? More than anything, The Columbian connects you to our community. In fact, our motto is “Community begins here.” But if society is losing its need to be connected to a community, society also is losing its need for a newspaper.

Any hope?

I’m an optimist and believe there always will be a place for newspapers and our websites. Ironically, people who say they get their news from Facebook often don’t realize that information was generated first by a newspaper. If newspapers and journalists go away, the news you might have assumed was generated out of thin air, well, it goes away.

And we’ll only be left with the bombastic conspiracy theorists who already are beginning to dominate social media.

So wherever you are, wherever you live, support your local newspaper.

I believe all newspapers, everywhere, are depending on you.

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Columbian Editor