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Foreman to newspapers: Put down the shovel, stop digging your own grave

February 13, 2010

John Foreman. Photo by Audrey Sawyer


By Emily Steele

It is time for those who have been digging the grave for newspapers to put down their shovels.

John Foreman, publisher of The News-Gazette in Champaign, Ill. said rather than buy into the hype of a dramatic upheaval of the newspaper industry, journalists should do what they always have done: research.

Foreman opened his session, titled “The Sage and the Prophecy of Doom: Journalism is FAR from Dead!” with the quote “change is in the air.” In 1845, James Gordan Bennett predicted the doom of the news media with the arrival of the telegraph.

“The reports of the doom of news are so old and so frequent that reading them again should make us laugh, not make us cry,” Foreman said.

With each technological advancement, the death of the newspaper industry was forecast, most often by their brethren in the media.

“Newspapers are failing,” Foreman said. “Respected magazines are writing the obit.”

In 1918, newspapers were threatened by the invention of the radio. The increasing popularity of TV in the 1970s prompted the development of the 1970 Newspaper Preservation Act, that saved two dozen newspapers. In the early ’90s, newspapers reached an economic peak, where prices soared, investors were overpaying and there were 20, 30 and 45 percent profits.

“Since 1991, we’ve seen what are the greatest profits in the history of news publishing,” Foreman said. When profits began to decrease, regular buyers filed bankruptcy, the industry could no longer sustain the same market as during the peak of profitability.

Many of the newspapers that had previously been sustained by the Newspaper Preservation Act went out of business. Foreman said that these newspapers “were literally on life support” and their individual failings were not an accurate measure of the total industry.

“In every industry, in every economic downturn the weakest competitor dies,” Foreman said. It does not spell out doom, instead Foreman said the media should understand the context and use it as an opportunity to redefine what news means.

“Unlike other industries we don’t do research and development,” he said.

Foreman compared technology to nuclear power.

“Technology is neither a good thing nor a bad thing,” Foreman said. “Technology depends entirely on how it’s used.” In order to survive the current technological advances, Foreman said media must use the technology to propel the news forward. If the technology is used to create the news then “it will level more than cities,” it would level the democratic system.

Still, Foreman is optimistic about the integration of the media with the newest technological advances.

“Trust me, this is a perfect storm,” Foreman said. “If history can be believed, the sun will come up.”

Adaptation to social media

As an extension of Foreman’s presentation, Meg Thilmony, a features editor at The News-Gazette , facilitated a discussion about the media and social networking.

Thilmony uses social media to reach out to alternate audiences and include them in the conversation. Through the News-Gazette Twitter account, she is able to involve the community in a conversation about the news by asking their opinion, using their tips and learning about road conditions. She is also able to use Twitter to the newspaper’s advantage by finding sources. They have also discussed allowing advertisers to purchase Tweets.

While Twitter has an older audience, Thilmony has been able to reach out to the paper’s audience and has even held local event called “Tweet-ups” where regular Twitterers could come together.

“There is an opportunity in things like Twitter that we need to be aware of” Thilmony said.

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