What’s black and white and read all over?

MITCHELL’S MUSINGS: Former Vernon newspaper editor on the future of newspapers

When it comes to the future of print media, it’s tempting to joke there isn’t one.

However, hopefully I can initiate a little more comprehensive discussion then that while addressing the topic at hand.

To understand the future of print media, a little history is in order.

Remember the last millennium, Y2K and such. Wasn’t that bogus? We even had a special Y2k columnist for goodness sake.

See: Vernon newspaper marks 31 years

Anyway, it was decided that the printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1468, was the greatest invention of the last millennium as it beat out a lot of great ones including the automobile, the television or anything by K-Tel or pitched at county fairs (or even sliced bread itself, for that matter).

The printing press led to literacy and democracy and newspapers and books and a middle class and the end of monarchies and despots.

It was no longer just the privileged few who could read and write and understand how the world worked, such as we know it.

We learned that putting our blind trust in the king, or government for that matter, because we didn’t know any better wasn’t really in our best interest. In fact, it was to our detriment, so thank you Mr. Gutenberg.

So newspapers thrived and people got rich, the Thomsons, Hearsts, (Conrad) Blacks, Murdochs, a new aristocracy if you will.

Every town that was worth its salt had a paper; we had one. The Vernon News was delivered Tuesdays and Thursdays, chockfull of local goings on including who was getting married, who was born, and even who was visiting from out of town.

We combined that with The Vancouver Sun delivered to your door the day after it was published in the Lower Mainland (afternoon paper). I should know I delivered it for years, and you had a pretty good base to be an informed resident.

My grandfather in New Westminster actually subscribed to three dailies: The Province, The Sun and the now defunct Columbian. Talk about being informed.

The VD News went daily in the 1970s and The Morning Star launched in the late ’80s to add to two shoppers and two radio stations and a cable and regional TV station to cover local happenings like a blanket.

It might have been the high point for newspapers as we quickly grew from two to three issues a week, a page count that sometimes passed 100 and a burgeoning staff complete with a bustling regional press plant.

Like anything in life, timing is key as free circulation, colour and local content teamed up to create a juggernaut that is one of the bigger success stories in Canadian community newspaper history.

Times were turning though and the VD News would soon be history, and something called the internet was beginning to make its presence known and take dead aim at the last millennium’s greatest invention (as well as other targets to likely hold the early lead for this millennium’s greatest invention although I’m not sure who invented it, other than Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf and not Al Gore).

Apparently, the inventor of Craig’s List went to the braintrust of a San Francisco daily and tried to get them involved with his idea of free classifieds, they knew better and declined. Oops.

While the reluctance to give up the most profitable part of the newspaper to some punk upstart who doesn’t even want to charge for ads is understandable, ultimately it proved fatal for that particular newspaper and many, many more.

It’s not quite that simple but as newspapers added free content on websites, with the plan to monetize it later, I fought against this on our website at the time as I thought it was important to protect our print product. That seems quaint at this time in the evolution of newspapers.

But as online competitors, both local and international, took a bigger bite out of the advertising dollar with no printing or circulation costs or community involvement, traditional media like newspapers and radio and TV stations were forced to cut newsrooms due to declining revenue.

Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple not only don’t pay taxes here like traditional retailers, or hire anyone here, they are the new aristocracy (Zuckerberg, $28.4 billion, Page etc.) and time will tell if they’re community-minded fellows (ahem).

But don’t write the obituary for the print newspaper quite yet.

See: Vernon Morning Star wins silver at B.C. awards

In fact, it’s the obituary itself that gives me hope for the future of the answer to the joke: What’s black and white and read all over? A newspaper, silly.

While obviously there are much fewer newspapers around and those that are, are thinner, obituaries are interesting because when it really counts people want to see their loved one’s life recorded in print, not on some transitory website that you have to go searching for and who knows if anyone will ever see it?

There’s still enough of us around that think it’s only real and true if it’s in black and white and distributed to 30,000 of our neighbours.

I remember that the rallying cry was “no gatekeepers” when the internet dawned, anybody with a computer and an internet connection could get his or her ideas and version of the truth into cyberspace.

True freedom they proclaimed, and no more control by those who owned the means of media. It took me awhile to realize I was a gatekeeper.

As editor of the Vernon Morning Star, I controlled what got in our newspaper and what didn’t, and while people may have likely thought I was controlled by some corporate entity, I wasn’t really as we tried to be fair, and tasteful and responsible as possible to the communities we served as their newspaper of record.

Ironically, today there’s less oversight or gatekeeping in newspapers today due to staffing plus there’s all those websites run by independent gatekeepers that may or may not employ reputable journalistic standards.

Speaking of standards, with Fox, CNN, MSNBC and bias and division and 24-hour coverage of Trump, something has to give, and it’s usually the truth.

Media literacy should be taught in schools, that the medium is the message, and that fast, short, sensational, videos online are the future which ironically means newspapers led to literacy and the internet may lead to the death of it with videos and short attention spans, etc.

Now to the future of print media. If you may have noticed my bias against digital media, you’d be right.

I just don’t think it can provide the same depth and breadth of news coverage as a community newspaper. I actually believe the sense of community and indeed, people’s lives and well-being, suffer as a result.

See: Don’t stop the presses: Report finds Canadian newspaper readership at all-time high

The current newspaper scene is just the beginning of that trend. I used to argue that what else comes to your door free of charge for your enjoyment and education and is tactile and real. You can control when and where you devour it or cut out stuff, etc.

It’s a great invention, likely the greatest invention of the last millennium, ahem, but may be struggling to keep up with this millennium’s greatest invention.

Apparently the Canadian government put aside a few million to help newspapers in the last budget, which is nice but I’m not sure how that will work.

I don’t think newspaper lovers will give them up willingly but the industry, like any business, has to adapt to change and find a model that includes print and digital and makes financial sense.

Right now, there’s a tendency to rely on flyers in community papers and increased charges for things like single copies for dailies. Not to mention cutting costs and indirectly content while remaining relevant in our daily lives.

What’s old isn’t always cool but that doesn’t mean it’s not vitally important. New York Times and Washington Post (breaking news) making lots of money apparently while maintaining journalism standards of the highest quality, both in print and digitally.

What’s for sure is the times they are a changing and some form of media will be around to cover it. Let’s hope that includes the print newspaper, but again I may be biased. Fridge art rules.

Glenn Mitchell is the former editor of the Vernon Morning Star


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