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Paul Steinle & Dr. Sara Brown
Valid Sources Inc. /
Who Needs Newspapers
Seattle, WA

Seattle, WA
Work: 541-941-8116

All we've done is have the people in the industry talk about what they do and why it is of value and we have documented that . . . all of these people speak from their hearts about how journalism has affected them."
Paul Steinle, MGP interview, June 2011

Multimedia reporting on the state of the best U.S. newspapers -- state by state

Download/play QuickTime video


Some of the best newspapers in America – of all sizes – are now reporting profit margins averaging 10% to 15% a year despite devastating drops in advertising revenue over the last five years, two experienced journalists say.

U.S. newspapers are transforming, not going out of business, says retired journalism professor and associate provost Paul Steinle, who was wrapping up in the summer of 2011 more than a year on a road tour taking him and his co-researcher-wife Sara M. Brown to at least one newspaper in each of the 50 states.

"Newspapers [previously] had such huge profits," Steinle said in a June 2011 interview. "They can have 15 percent to 20 percent knocked out of them and they are still in business and they are still a pretty good business . . . I'm tired of reading this 'death of newspapers' story, frankly."

Steinle, a former UPI president, and Brown, a one-time human-resources officer for the Los Angeles Times, set aside $40,000 of their own money (two foundations declined to provide grants for the effort), and departed their Ashland, Ore., home on June 15, 2010. They formed a 501(c)3 non-profit, Valid Sources Inc., and a website, "Who Needs Newspapers?" They consulted state newspaper association executives and identified one exemplary, award-winning newspaper in each state as interview targets.

Their goal: Instead of joining in predicting the demise of newspapers, find out what's really happening among the nation's best dailies – and tell the public. In the process, they hoped to provide the industry with fresh information about its transformation, and also clarify what papers' see as their public purpose and value.

"All we've done is had the people in the industry talk about what they do and why it is of value and we have documented that," Steinle said in a June 2011, Media Giraffe Project interview. "It is obvious that the industry has not marketed itself well."

At each stop, they recorded video interviews with the publisher, the editor and whoever oversees the selected newspaper's online-news operation, gathering vital statistics, editing and posting the video interviews and stories online throughout the process. In the interviews, they asked executives to talk about why newspapers, and journalism, matter to a community, and how they were coping with the move of reader attention – and advertising -- to digital platforms.

"They see themselves to be the center of the community dialog," Steinle said during a May 23 presentation on their findings at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. "The glue that holds the community together . . . like the town square . . . the community meeting place through the newspaper." Dozens of their video interviews, broken into short snippets, are posted online and the couple played a few excerpts at the Washington presentation. One question they asked over and over again: What would be the impact on your community if your newspaper closed and was not replaced?

"Intellectual power outage," replied Tim Dwyer, executive editor of The Day, of New London, Conn., which is owned by a foundation. "I just think the lights would go out. Democracy doesn't do well in a dark place."

Of the daily papers they picked, said Brown, 54 percent are under 50,000 circulation, and 23 percent are over 100,000 circulation; with the rest in between. The included papers owned by publicly traded chains McClatchy, Cox, Lee, New York Times, Gannett, Media General and Belo.

Papers' unaware of each other's best efforts
The husband-and-wife duo are careful to cast their findings so far as coordinated, yet anecdotal reporting -- rather than formal research. However, they have reached at least five firm conclusions or observations so far:

  • Print is not dead, according to the people they talked to.
  • Transformation is bringing new energy to the best newsrooms.
  • Journalists now need multiple skills to perform their jobs.
  • Most papers are hoping then can charge for news on tablets and mobile devices.
  • Papers are unaware of each other's best practices, especially in meeting challenges of a digital future. In 44 interviews, 44 papers had 44 different titles for the person running digital operations, Steinle said, adding: "It strikes us as fascinating because we see it over and over again how people keep recreating the wheel everywhere."

"Based on what we've seen there is an awful lot of activity going on," says Steinle. "Nobody's sitting around, they haven't just read the diagnosis and decided to go into hospice. This is not the situation. What we discovered was people were fighting. They are coming up with new ideas and they are reorganizing. They are putting resources in different places."

The duo observe that because of digital outlets, reporting is reaching more people than ever. For example, the latest annual State of the News Media report by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism said 80 percent of links in news-oriented blog posts lead ultimately back to a story by a newspaper reporter. Yet there are tens of thousands fewer U.S. newspaper reporters than a decade ago. So at a time when newspapers are feeding our news consumption more than ever, there is less original reporting to consume.

Why so many privately owned papers?
Brown and Steinle are not prepared to assert a conclusion about why so many of the papers judged excellent by press associations -- and therefore selected for interviews --were in private ownership. They say the question is worth further study. "I don't think we can generalize about them," Steinle said at the National Press Club briefing on their work. He continued:

      "But I think it is quite obvious that the locus of control is closer at the private company. They're closer to the owner. And the owners are part of the community, usually. And of course that makes some difference. They go to the Rotary Club, or whatever . . . they feel more pressures and they are going to put more into their newspaper, probably. That's not to say the public one's don't have their virtues, too. Because they often bring more expertise . . . there are tradeoffs on these things. I don't think you can generalize."
The couple want to invest more time, retrospectively, thinking deeply about all they've heard and written. They have a good idea now what journalists think. Now they'd like to take their reporting to another level – by fostering or being part of research on what citizens think about the role and performance of their local paper.