A look at the life of newspapers | Our Corner

You're looking at a brand new Courier-Herald.

You’re looking at a brand new Courier-Herald.

Well, actually, you’ll need to go to www.courierherald.com to see what’s new, because we are revamping the newspaper’s website in the near future.

I’m personally stoked for the change – not only will the new website look different (read: better) but there’s a lot more I personally will be able to do, like putting more than one photo with an article, running polls inside stories, even controlling the order of stories that readers see, instead of the automated chronological order.

This change is coming when many newspapers find themselves at a pivotal crossroads. Where we decide to go from here depends on how we answer this question: “What is our purpose?”

Many reporters and editors (myself included) would say that the purpose of a newspaper, when boiled down to its basest level, is to inform. It doesn’t matter how dull or mind-numbing a city council story can be – if people need to know about it, we’re going to write it.

But many of our readers and publishers nowadays argue that the purpose of the newspaper is to entertain, while still holding onto good journalistic ethics. Without a good story behind the article, are you really going to read about an impact fee deferment program, or about the city accepting a half million grant?

Of course not. The majority of us (I’m a full-on newsophile, reading anywhere between three and six newspapers a day, and I still fall into this category) are going to read the stories about the police chase and the Soup Ladies, because there’s a real story there. These stories grab your attention or pull on your heart strings.

In the news world, the story’s the thing.

But whether you think newspapers should be government and corporate watchdogs or strong community pillars, the purpose of a newspaper is to be there for the people.

But, year after year and budget cutback after budget cutback, it’s been getting much tougher to do that.

It’s old news that the internet (specifically E-Bay and Craigslist) killed the newspaper’s classified revenue section as well as precipitate the huge drop in print advertisement revenue.

So where do we go from here?

Becoming 100 percent digital has been ruled out as an option. And trying to revamp the flailing advertising model newspapers used to thrive on is a lesson in futility.

People have suggested that newspapers should receive government subsidies in order to retain the staff levels necessary to fact check their sources, report breaking and in-depth news and make it interesting to read (not an easy task for some city council stories, let me tell you).

Others have suggested that newspapers should become 501(c)3 nonprofits and supplement advertising revenue with corporate sponsorships, federal grants and public donations.

Obviously, these two specific examples have loads of issues, like remaining independent from the government newspapers are supposed to be reporting on, or retaining the ability to make political endorsements to sway public opinion, a powerful editorial tool that non-profit newspapers lose.

These are big risks, but if done right, independence and political power doesn’t have to be lost. And the financial benefits can be great, which means we can give a big boost to newspapers and the people who read them.

Since 2012, the federal government has appropriated between $421 and $445 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which describes itself as “the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting and the largest single source of funding for public radio, television, and related online and mobile services” on its About CPB webpage.

And approximately 95 percent of this revenue goes to radio and television content development (both news and non-news) community services and local station and system needs.

In Washington alone, CPB gave 17 radio and television stations approximately $7.1 million in community service grants, educational programming grants and system support grants.

But only 11 percent of public radio revenue sources come from CPB and other similar entities.

Since these are public radio stations, people are allowed to donate to them and become the largest revenue source by far at a whopping 34 percent.

Imagine what your local newspaper could do for your community with that level of federal and community support.

So how should we move forward? We go public.

It starts with the creation of the Corporation for Public Publishing, the CPB equivalent for non-profit print products, and the passing of a Congress in the Public Publishing Act, to encourage the growth and development of public publishing for instructional, educational, and cultural purposes.

(I pulled that language straight from the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. We’ve done it once and we can do it again.)

Federal money funneled through the CPP is made available in the form of community service grants, education grants, system grants and more to non-profits dedicated to education, entertainment and, of course, news, in the form of regularly printed programs.

Newspapers, in turn, become non-profit companies that either stay independent of each other, or begin to group together to share their content among member papers, similar to how National Public Radio, the Public Broadcasting Service and even the Associated Press share their products.

And instead of being financially dependent on advertisers, non-profit newspapers become financially dependent on the communities they live in, and the papers they put out will be held accountable through community wants and needs.

Our new website is going to change how a lot of people interact with the Courier-Herald, but it’s not going to bring a huge change to the paper.

But huge change is exactly what newspapers need in order to keep up with the needs of the country.