Pathfinding for newspapers in the digital world – The Commercial Appeal
I had already prepared a lecture with a rather ominous title â âGetting Along Without Traditional Media.â
But the minute I walked into my Media, Diversity and Society class at the University of Memphis last Wednesday, a student asked, âAre we going to talk about The Commercial Appeal?â
âOf course,â I responded. How could we not?
Practically everyone else in town was talking about this newspaper and the number of familiar longtime journalists who were let go in the latest round of layoffs.
My students and I have spent a good deal of time this semester discussing the seemingly never-ending changes that the traditional news media are enduring, and what those changes mean for consumers of news and society in general.
Last week, this newspaper, which I have been associated with for some 33 years, gave the class a real-time example of the challenges many newspapers are facing in the digital age.
In essence, The CA, which had been fiercely independent throughout its 176 years of existence, has now completed the shift to becoming part of a statewide news consortium known as the USA Today Network â Tennessee.
Louis Graham, executive editor of The Commercial Appeal, called it âa historic transformation,â and that is absolutely true. The CA is now intertwined with every other Gannett-owned newspaper in the state in a virtual alliance producing content with a digital first focus.
In other words, readers in Memphis, Jackson, Nashville, Clarksville, Knoxville and Murfreesboro will receive some of the same content, although Graham said The CA will retain a good bit of local coverage with a renewed focus on suburban communities, along with land use and zoning issues.
But for longtime readers of The CA, their focus was not on the statewide alliance or the extra attention to the suburbs. It was on the familiar bylines and photo credit lines of Michael Donahue, Phil Stukenborg, Jody Callahan and Nikki Boertman that are no longer here.
Also let go are people whose names you donât often see â Kim Coleman, Beth Gooch, Kyra Cross, David Boyd, Tom McDaniel and others â all consummate professionals who worked behind the scenes helping to produce good journalism every day.
In addition, this change means the retirement of editorial page editor Jerome Wright, a friend and colleague for four decades, and the longest tenured person in The CA newsroom. No journalist in this city knows more about Memphis than he does. That is the downside to the transformation to a statewide newsgathering and news producing network.
And yet, there is a good reason why my classroom lecture was about getting along without traditional media. Itâs because, unfortunately, tradition is no longer sustainable in the digital world. People, regardless of age, race or education, are reading newspapers less.
A 2016 report by the Pew Research Center showed that 42 percent of people age 18-24 were daily newspaper readers in 1999. For those age 55-64, it was 69 percent, and for those 65 and older, 72 percent were daily readers.
In 2015, however, only 16 percent of people 18-24 were daily readers. Among those 55-64, it was 38 percent, and those 65 and older it was 50 percent.
The conclusion behind the numbers is that the overwhelming majority of news consumers, including some of the most loyal newspaper readers over 65, are gravitating to digital platforms as their primary source of news. Interest in the printed newspaper is fading faster than even I imagined. That, along with declining advertising revenue for the printed product, makes a robust newsroom a thing of the past.
At the end of the discussion Wednesday, there was a bit of somberness in the classroom for what had just happened at 495 Union. Even some of these 18-to-24-year-olds, who donât have a habit of reading the newspaper daily, were familiar with the names Donahue, Stukenborg and Wright. And they recognize there can be a tremendous downside to the digital world in which they live.
But they also understand that in this digital age, good journalism is not dependent on ink by the barrel and newsprint by the ton. Good journalism will survive. It has to.
Because without it, our digital world will be nothing but a ball of confusion.
Otis Sanford holds the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Memphis. Contact him at 901-678-3669 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @otissanford.