I had a depressing conversation with my mother on Sunday. It’s not the first time. It won’t be the last. The subject is a familiar one — the slow demise of newspapers.
My mom is 86 years old, a graduate of the School of Journalism at the University of North Carolina and a healthy consumer of news. She has never owned a computer nor has she used one. The cell phone we insist that she keeps for emergencies is an old flip-top. It’s pretty far from a smart phone. She doesn’t particularly like TV news.
She wants her news in print, dammit. She likes to prop her arms on the kitchen table and read at her leisure while occasionally looking up to see what Stokes County wildlife is visiting her front yard.
The problem? She can’t get consistent home delivery from her nearest metropolitan newspaper — the Winston-Salem Journal. Every single newspaper today has this thorny problem. When I was editor of the Times-News in Burlington every other circulation complaint call I received was from someone who began by saying, “I’ve been buying your paper for 50 years . . .” Well, my mom has been a Journal subscriber for roughly 55 years. In fact, our Sunday conversation is not unlike circulation complaints I received regularly before I left the business by my own choice in November of 2016. And they were growing in frequency.
The fact is, I’ve been having this same conversation with my mom for the past couple of years. It always veers into my unhappy explanation that reader habits have changed, profits are much lower, retail buying by shoppers has shifted from brick and mortar stores to online vendors and corporations are swallowing newspapers whole like a whale slurping up guppies. Services are blended among other newspapers within the same company, deadlines are radically altered and the prices continue to rise while the product shrinks. The number of print customers has been in freefall for the last 10 years, fewer print customers means less money for newspaper carriers who run longer routes with more products to make up the difference. As a result, keeping carriers has become almost impossible.
Because my mom lives in a rural area she seems to have a new carrier every month. Her last carrier quit, gave the newspaper no notice and for several days the Journal delivered a stack of newspapers to a country store where the carrier was supposed to pick them up for his daily deliveries. He simply stopped. No one picked up the newspapers, until my mom called to complain. I have a feeling the circulation director at the Journal recognizes my mom’s voice by now.
On Sunday she had not received a newspaper in two weeks.
“You know, there will be a time when the Journal will probably stop home delivery to Stokes County,” I told her. “They won’t be able to keep a carrier because there aren’t enough customers to support one.”
I have no idea if or when that time might come. I only know the financial factors and corporate interference are conspiring to finish off print newspapers as they still struggle to make the tricky shift to the digital production, which is also less expensive to produce but ironically provides far less potential revenue.
Obviously this is not new. It’s one of the 50 reasons I left a business I worked in for 34 years. The decline is eye-opening. When I returned to Burlington in 2007 our newsroom had 28 employees. When I left there were 13 full-timers. The job and circulation losses are the same nearly everywhere.
In a Washington Post column by Margaret Sullivan about the new top editor at the News and Observer, Robyn Tomlin, she provides a quote by Ken Doctor, who studies media economics. “The grim reality of daily newspapering in 2018 grows grimmer each week. While Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post serves as a wonderful contrarian model of business, product, and staff growth, 2018 looks like a year of great reckoning for much of the America’s 1,350 daily newspapers.”
Reckoning — that’s not good.
So who knows how long newspapers will last? I have no clear idea. When I left in 2016 I told friends this was the end times for newspapers. My mom is among those asking what happens in a world without newspapers there to hold public officials and government accountable. I was reminded of this editorial I wrote a couple of years ago about the contaminated water that was poisoning children in Flint, Michigan.
This offers an idea of what the future might hold.
When government leaders furrow their foreheads in puzzlement about why people don’t trust leaders these days they need look no further than what happened in Flint, Mich.
Make no mistake, this isn’t a regional story. It’s one all should pay attention to. And I’m talking about the news media, too.
So what happened in Flint a taxpayer in Alamance County might wonder. Well, to save money, the state of Michigan poisoned the children of Flint.
That’s right. They poisoned poor children in a city that couldn’t really defend itself. They did so in secret, where all bad government decisions are rendered.
And then newspapers and TV and the internet let it pass unnoticed. That’s on us, that’s our job — to notice misdeeds by government and bring it to light. It’s a troubling sign of the times in media, where too few reporters are in the field.
Michigan officials apparently thought so little of the impoverished city and its 100,000 residents, most of them poor and people of color, that they switched the water supply from the pure waters of Lake Huron to the brackish Flint River. Then they broke federal law by neglecting to treat the water with an anti-corrosion agent, which would have cost about $100 a day.
The water’s heavy iron content ate into the water lines, about half of which are made of lead. The water smelled and tasted foul, but state officials said everything was fine, even though a university research team said the lead content was dangerously high.
Finally a pediatrician compared the blood lead levels of toddlers she was seeing with records on hand from previous years. She saw lead levels had doubled or even tripled since the water line switch.
Lead poisoning is irreversible. To save a relatively small amount of money, the state may have doomed these children to lower IQ levels, behavioral problems, growth delays, hearing difficulties and a host of other physical and neurological ailments.
Michigan has committed a stunning act of governmental malpractice. But why should anyone be surprised. We’ve seen this kind of thing before in matters large, small and everything in-between over the past few decades. An example in North Carolina is the years of malfeasance by government officials over tainted water aboard the largest Marine Corps installation on the East Coast, Camp Lejeune, putting military families at risk for cancers and other lethal maladies.
Now this tainted water supply will cost Michigan and the federal government for years. Flint’s families will need intensive services like nutritional programs and early childhood education to mitigate the damage.
But right now they need clean water. The state spent $10 million to hook the water back to its old source, but the corroded pipes are still leaching lead. The National Guard is going door to door, passing out bottles of water safe to drink.
This matter should set off alarm bells for governments at all levels who might wrongly think it’s smart policy to starve budgets to the point where essential services begin to break down.
States can act irresponsibly with wasteful spending, yes. But refusal to spend — even when the law requires it — can cause immeasurable harm.
Now we have another tragic example.