When I got an email from Joe Wirt, director of affiliate relations for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, saying he wanted to visit the Express office, I was a bit surprised. Flattered, even. Wow, they know we exist!
I was expecting a stuffy, executive type, but last Wednesday, a very pleasant guy in a plaid shirt and jeans walked into the office and I assumed it was someone wanting to place a classified ad but no — it was CNPA Joe! I immediately felt more relaxed until Joe told me it was his first visit to the Express office, and asked for a tour.
Yoikes. It’s his first time here. Double yoikes.
The anxiety and shame started gurgling.
If you’ve ever been to the Express office, you know why. Tidier surroundings have been featured on “Hoarders.” When you look at the squalor every day, your brain tunes it out like background noise. But when you’re showing it to someone for the first time, it’s suddenly hideously embarrassing.
Tour. OK. Well. Here’s Charley’s pile of junk … and my pile of junk … and over here is Newt’s private office, but that isn’t junk, it only looks like it, and then of course, there’s the actual room full of junk, complete with grime-coated Heidelberg presses from the Mesozoic Era of journalism.
The main office is adorned with pieces of papers taped askew everywhere, telephone wires threaded along the walls like stripped-bare Christmas lights, and piles of dusty newspapers stuffed onto on every shelf and horizontal surface. And yet, in the midst of this muck and mire, we manage to put out a pretty great little newspaper, if I do say so myself.
Thankfully, the deluxe tour only takes about 90 seconds, keeping my humiliation to a minimum. I directed Joe to a chair so we could chat — no, not that one, it’s broken … no not that one, it’s filthy — and asked him what inspired him to come visit our humble hovel.
He explained that he’s visiting small northern California newspapers to see what it’s really like in our world rather than assuming that we’re all in a rush to ditch print publication for online formats and iPhone apps. Apparently, the good folks at CNPA noticed that, wait a minute — not every small newspaper is dying a slow, choking death. Many are surviving, just as they are, despite years of economic stagnation and the explosion of online technology. But how? We should be dead. Why aren’t we?
This stopped me in my mental tracks for a moment. Joe’s right! The Express isn’t lucrative, but it’s still treading water despite all odds. We’ve had to be creative and cut all sorts of corners, but we’re holding our own. Moreover, people still want their newspapers and call us if the paper’s late on Wednesdays. The Express still matters to them.
We started teasing out the threads of why that’s still so. It all comes down to personal, local focus. People still want to see their “Future Subscribers” on the front page, and their deceased loved ones on A-2 … the smiling faces of the Little League champs, holding their “We’re Number One” fingers up, and fraying old wedding photos in 50th anniversary stories. They still lovingly cut these out and save them until they’re crinkled and yellow, because printing out a story from online just doesn’t feel the same. It just doesn’t. It has no soul.
People still want to read the city council stories on paper rather than watch them on cable, likely because waiting a week for the story is less painful than sitting through a meeting. And they love guessing who the mystery “Who is this?” person is each week and looking for their friends and neighbors in the weekly police report.
The Express is a collective letter from home that binds the entire community together. We’re all reading the same thing at the same time. Until. There’s the key word. Until the newspaper-reading generation passes away.
Today’s teenagers don’t read newspapers like we did. They aren’t interested in anything that can’t be accessed from staring into an iPhone, typing frantically with their thumbs. It’s so very sad — all that life time spent staring into a cell phone. But clearly, the next generation finds nothing wrong with it, and when they come of age, print journalism will sunset.
I’ve been predicting that I’ll see newspapers disappear within my lifetime, along with typewriters and cassette tapes. What will it be like when that last newspaper rolls off that last press? Will the guy typing up a city council story in India (don’t laugh, it’s already happening) know about the layers of local history and nuance in a story?
Will the intern doing Winters Yahoo! news take your call a day after deadline and squeeze in your heartfelt letter to the editor anyway? Will the gal slapping out the digital community news from three counties away drop what she’s doing and go look up the date of the soccer team’s carwash fundraiser for you?
No. No, he won’t. She won’t either.
Yes, I’ve been feeling just this pessimistic about our industry’s future, or lack thereof. But Joe’s interest and enthusiasm made me wonder if I’ve been mourning the death of print journalism too soon. It’s true — small community newspapers really aren’t dead yet. I asked Joe what he thought of a workshop for editors and reporters from small newspapers, where we could share our best ideas and successes, build each other up and do some brainstorming. Joe liked the idea, and said he could make that happen.
Suddenly, I’m feeling encouraged. Together, we little guys might find ways to strengthen our readership and rejuvenate our enthusiasm … maybe even get off life support and actually thrive. I hope so. And so should you. Because trust me, you’ll miss us when we’re gone.
— Email Debra DeAngelo at email@example.com; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.edebra.com