Editor's Weekly: Irrational exuberance among newspaper editors
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 21, 2012 - Dear Beaconites -"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."
That bit of wisdom, variously credited to Will Rogers or Mark Twain, came to mind this week after release of a surprising survey of daily newspaper editors. "Despite declining readership and an economy that has battered revenues and forced painful cuts, the publishers of U.S. dailies remain optimistic about the future of newspapers," the study found.
The research comes with an impeccable pedigree from the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and has a catchy name, the RJI Publishers Confidence Index. Reynolds plans to take the pulse of newspaper executives annually to benchmark how they're coping with what economists call the creative destruction phase of the industry.
This year, nearly two-thirds of the executives surveyed were somewhat optimistic or very optimistic about the newspaper business. Only 4 percent said they were not optimistic, and none of the 458 interviewed opted for "not optimistic at all."
In other words, either the newspaper business has a bright future, or a lot of newspaper bigwigs know some things that just ain't so. As a longtime print journalist, I hope the former proves to be true. But wishing won't make it so, nor will denial help journalists serve the public well.
The truth is that we're witnessing the most profound change in mass communication since the invention of moveable type. That earlier transformation made the printed word ubiquitous; everyone became a potential consumer of information. The digital era has made the means of distribution ubiquitous; everyone became a potential publisher of information.
Perhaps newspaper publishers are optimistic because they like having lots of company. Or perhaps they are using the new digital tools to create superior forms of reporting and engagement and a business model to support them.
But the Publishers Confidence Index suggests otherwise. "Although the survey revealed increased effort being poured into development of new digital products at newspapers, many publishers are counting on the print edition to continue to play a significant role in future success," a summary of the findings says.
Newspapers are still the biggest game in many towns -- especially small towns -- for advertisers and newshounds alike. Perhaps that's why small circulation publishers are even more optimistic than their big-city counterparts. Yet the tide of digital communication is rising everywhere. While newspapers will no doubt survive, no one should expect their newsrooms to regain the strength they once enjoyed.
Meanwhile, communities still need what traditional media used to provide -- the means to mobilize public attention on important issues, to inform decisions with reality, to test opinions in a common marketplace of ideas and to curb power with vigilance. To meet those needs, we must look forward, not back, and strengthen the news ecosystem that is now emerging.
By serving St. Louisans well, the Beacon is helping to shape that unruly ecosystem for good. Whether we're optimistic or pessimistic about the future is somewhat beside the point. What's important is being realistic -- realistic about what we don't know and about what we know that just ain't so.
We're grateful for the opportunity to help figure out the future, and for the energy, involvement and support of fellow St. Louisans in this exciting time.