The staff of The Sag Harbor Express traveled north to attend the New York Press Association’s annual spring newspaper conference in Albany over the weekend and it was clear from the opening remarks that this is a pivotal moment in time for our industry with an opportunity for newspapers to reclaim their rightful position as leaders of the “community forum.”
Internet and social media tech giants have disrupted the newspaper industry and have compromised important community connections. Readers today find much of their news online through Facebook or Twitter, including stories from The Express and other local newspapers. But it’s been proven, at the same time, that other “news” coming across social media feeds is not quite as trustworthy, even “fake,” as we’ve heard so often. Social media conversations and anonymous commenting over political, social and economic issues has led to a near collapse of civil discourse online and painful divisions in American society.
Which is why leaders from newspaper associations across the United States and Canada have banded together on a relevance study led by Andy Cunningham of the Cunningham Collective, a firm that specializes in marketing, branding and communication. During her career, Ms. Cunningham helped brand tech giants like Oracle, Blackberry, Motorola and Cisco and worked alongside Steve Jobs while playing a key role in the launch of the first Macintosh computer. And now she is helping lead newspapers back to the top of their own industry.
“The mission of the relevance project is to redefine the community forum by twisting the assets of community journalism to make it more relevant in the digital age,” Michelle Rea, the chief executive officer of the New York Press Association, explained on Friday. “The goal is to reposition community journalism as the center of democracy and society. While some aspects of the newspaper industry are a train wreck, journalism has never been more important.”
As I was driving home from Albany on Sunday, I tuned into NPR (side note: public radio is also undergoing a resurgence) and came upon the show “Hidden Brain,” hosted by Shankar Vedantam. The focus was on the history of fake news, which, it turns out, has deep roots in this country, and on what the loss of newspapers has meant to communities across America. Between 2006 and 2014, approximately 20,000 journalists lost their jobs in America, Mr. Vedantam reported, so there was plenty to study. He said communities that lost their local newspaper saw corruption in local government escalate along with corresponding increases in their governments’ borrowing rates. One study showed that borrowing rates increased, on average, by 0.1 percent in areas where the newspaper had closed. While that does not seem like a big number on the surface, if you consider municipal or school district borrowing, a loan of, say, $10 million would mean an additional $10,000 per year for the life of the loan. A 10-year loan, therefore, would require an additional $100,000 from taxpayers.
The NPR show compared the importance of newspapers to that of a school district, library or fire department, especially in terms of its duties as a community watchdog. The big difference, however, is that newspapers, at the community level, are privately owned and need to be financially successful without receiving support from the governments they are charged with holding accountable.
Unfortunately, the trend in recent years has been a decline in subscriptions and print advertising, which is partially the fault of newspapers, including ours, that offered online content for free in the early days of the internet. The national newspaper relevance project included 44 state and provincial newspaper associations that represent roughly 9,600 newspapers. Collectively and cooperatively, these newspapers have the ability to deliver local engagement on a national scale. The goal of the relevancy project is to position and brand newspapers as critical to the economic, social and political health of their communities, an effort we at The Express plan to wholeheartedly support.
“We’re on the cusp of a major paradigm shift,” Ms. Rea explained to the hundreds of publishers, journalists and advertising executives in Albany over the weekend. “Backlash against the tech giants and the damage their platforms are doing to our societies is increasing daily… It’s time to reestablish and redefine the community forum.”
We will see some of you next week at our final Express Sessions event of the spring season at The American Hotel, where we will host a discussion on water quality. During the last year we have hosted forums on affordable housing (twice), renewable energy, parking and transportation, health insurance, land use and preservation, the importance of the arts and the future of Main Street in Sag Harbor. We also hosted a forum on community journalism, because we believe it plays an important role in keeping the rest of these issues in balance.
As we unveil a paid model for our website this week, we ask our loyal readers to keep reading and our advertisers to keep advertising. And we, along with 9,600 other newspapers across America and Canada, will ask anyone willing to listen to support us in any way they can. The future of democracy may depend on it.