With the September release of the second edition of his book The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information
Age, Philip Meyer ’ 63 (MA) transitions
from journalist to historian.
“Every reference to newspapers in
the second edition is in the past tense,”
says Meyer, UNC journalism professor
emeritus and former Knight Chair in
Journalism. “The newspaper situation is
changing so quickly, it would become
out of date if I pretended that what I
was saying about newspapers was true at
the time it got into the reader’s hands.”
Meyer doesn’t believe that newspapers will go away altogether, but they
will have to change. Rather than try to
provide all things to all readers — hard
news, soft features, sports, ads, comics
and a crossword puzzle — the newspaper of the future will have to “whittle
down to the bare essentials that give it
influence,” he said.
Newspapers — and other news platforms — make money by delivering eyeballs to advertisers. For decades, newspapers provided the most efficient central
marketplace to bring together buyers and
sellers. That gave newspapers a virtual
monopoly and allowed them to charge
quite a lot for advertising, Meyer said.
While most retailers made profit margins
of 5 or 6 percent, newspapers commanded profit margins of 20 to 40 percent. But the Internet and other direct-marketing strategies offered competition
by efficiently matching buyers with sellers.
“Newspapers had it so good for so
long that they’re having trouble adjusting to the fact that they are no longer
monopolies,” Meyer said.
As their ad revenue dropped, newspapers cut back the quality of their content to maintain high profit margins.
Readers had less reason to buy newspapers.
“The bottom line is that someone
else has to pay for the quality of journalism that we’re used to,” he said.
“Nobody has figured out who that will
be or how that’s going to work.”
A newspaper’s product has always
been community influence, Meyer said.
To that end, he proposes that newspapers
gear themselves toward one narrow segment of readership, and he recommends
policy wonks. Continue strong investigative reporting about public affairs, and
the wonks will begin talking about the
important events that happen, which
then will filter down to the masses.
Citizen journalists may aid the
process. Meyer is on the editorial advisory board of patch.com, a chain of
online newspapers in New Jersey and
Connecticut. Harnessing the power and
energy of citizen journalists can be used
for the public good, he said, but no need
to worry that they’ll usurp professional
journalists. “We need professional journalists to train and supervise the citizen
journalists,” he said.
New media competing with newspapers need to remember who their client
is. Meyer contends that newspapers exist
to serve the social system to make
democracy work. Newspapers show
cause and effect: Here’s what’s happened;
here’s the result. Is this what we want? Is
that what’s best for society?
His second edition of The Vanishing
Newspaper treats newspapers as a historic
example of how journalism worked
beautifully for a while, then ran into
trouble because of new media.
“Take this as a case history,” he said,
“so that you creators of new media don’t
make the mistakes newspapers made.”
— Nancy E. Oates
In the Past Tense
‘The bottom line is that someone else has to pay for the quality
of journalism that we’re used to. Nobody has figured out
who that will be or how that’s going to work.’
Philip Meyer ’ 63 (MA)
professor emeritus and author of The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age
realities of today’s media landscape. But for
me, it’s been a good supplement to the
things I’ve been doing on my own.”
Transitioning to careers
Last year, the school became one of 12
schools nationwide selected to participate
in the Carnegie Knight Initiative, and Ruel
serves as the executive producer for a project called News 21 through a grant from
the initiative. UNC was tapped as an incubator school, with eight grad students and
two undergraduates producing stories in
different formats and interactive projects on
the mountaintop removal method of mining coal; they were paid $750 a week for
10 weeks this summer. The students took a
class in the spring to plan for their summer
project, and they were expected to emerge
with an understanding of the technology
behind multimedia storytelling that most
experienced journalists don’t have.
Ruel said she expected it to be “a
groundbreaking project for the industry.”
The stories, posted on poweringana-
tion.org, will be available to any news
organization that wants to pick them up;
organizations expressing interest include
National Public Radio. But mainstream
media may not want to air the stories,
Ruel acknowledged, because the way the
stories will be told will be so nontraditional. Students may dig up news through
DAN SEARS ’ 74