It’s just true. And time hasn’t changed it: Find a well-run, stable or progressive community and it will be served by a well-run local newspaper.
The Mississippi Press Association is observing its 150th birthday this year. Members gathered last month in Biloxi to toast the milestone.
Clearly, much has changed in the industry since a bunch of old men gathered on a steamboat near Vicksburg, puffed their cigars and decided that forming a trade association would be a good way to stifle Yankee interlopers who were launching publications.
Turns out, those carpetbaggers weren’t the last of the intruders. Radio followed. Television. Cable. Satellite. Internet. And who knows what’s next?
Molten lead, pica poles, proportion wheels and black and white film have given way to offset presses, pagination and digital imaging. And who knows what’s next?
Of all the “threats,” the internet has had the greatest impact. That’s because it bolloxed up the economic model.
One day, real estate firms, employers, car dealers, restaurants, grocery stores and many others were paying newspapers to deliver information about their products and services. The next day, it seems, people were obtaining this information on their phones.
So was that to be the end?
According to research presented at the MPA meeting, three of four Mississippians are regular readers of their papers—most likely their local papers—or their websites.
Because people want information about the places where they live and work.
There is no actual record of what was said at that first huddle of Mississippi newspaper owners, but it’s clear enough the topic was how to keep subscribers. That’s always the topic whenever publishers gather.
Strangely, it’s not at all complicated. It’s a value proposition: Offer people a product they find worth what it costs and they will buy it. If it’s not worth their money or their time, they won’t.
And that leads to this: Stan Tiner, former editor of The (Biloxi) Sun Herald, and Delbert Hosemann, secretary of state, were headliners at the newspaper confab. Tiner was feted as the newest inductee of the MPA Hall of Fame. Hosemann was invited to talk about the Y’all Mississippi business development website he shepherded. Both went off script a bit.
Separately, the retired newsman and the elected official had an admonition: Do journalism. The people need it. The state needs it. Communities need it.
Solid news coverage is the value part of that value proposition, or at least a big part of it.
For his part, Tiner led the news team presented the Pultizer Prize for its post-Katrina efforts. He spoke of how the great storm accented the privilege of being a journalist—of earning and serving the people’s trust. And he said that good, solid journalism—day in and day out—is a pathway to a brighter day.
Hosemann bore down on his audience. “You’ve got to ask questions,” he said, pointing out that no other mechanism exists in society to hold officials accountable.
There was a lot of silence in the room because, frankly, there’s not as much journalism going on in Mississippi or elsewhere as there was in the halcyon days. Owners have concentrated too much on threats to their business and neglected why subscribers subscribe. Again: People avail themselves of a product when it merits their investment. Period.
What makes a paper good? Serving as an honest broker of relevant information. Not all sunshine and roses. Not all gloom and doom.
Several years ago, when Edgar Crisler was editor and publisher of the Port Gibson Reveille, the local chamber of commerce got on his case about stories deemed “too aggressive.” Edgar was a gentleman’s gentleman. He did not go looking for trouble, muckraking or flying off the editorial handle. He responded in his rambling opinion column. Under the headline, “Newspapers Are Not Cheerleaders,” he gently pointed out that people expected truth for their 25 cents, and that’s what he intended to deliver. Communities don’t progress when smiley faces are painted over challenges.
Readers are quick to sniff out sloppy copy riddled with puffery and guesswork.
Ask any metro reporter who started at a community paper which job was harder and every one will say their days at the “little papers” were more rigorous. They will also say the jobs were more rewarding in every way, except financially.
The job is to deliver a full and accurate snapshot of the day. Good day. Bad day. Mixed day. The job is to ask questions, demand answers.
That sells newspapers. And it helps communities prosper.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist and a contributing columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.