Maybe it’s time for New York Times chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. to stop jet-setting the world, giving conferences on the future of digital journalism, and start paying more attention to the digital divide. Namely, smaller communities within the U.S. who don’t have access to digital news platforms.
A September 9th article in The Atlantic quoted Sulzberger as saying, “We will stop printing The New York Times sometime in the future, date TBD.” The details as to when, remain vague. As they should.
Obviously anyone who runs one of the largest newspapers in the world probably knows the day-in and day-out procedures for sustainable business models for journalism better than any lowly blogger/filmmaker such as myself. However, you would figure that someone of his power would first be concerned with the digital divide our country (and many other nations for that matter) faces now and within the foreseeable future.
On a recent trip to Libby Montana, I had the fortunate opportunity to meet with several residents who are all too familiar with media attention.
Libby Montana is a small town in the northwestern part of the state and has a total population of 2921 residents. Over the past twenty-five years it has been plagued with asbestos contamination which has killed over 200 people and sickened several more. In 1999 it was a newspaper reporter, Andrew Schneider of The Seattle P.I. who broke the investigation into the asbestos contamination, linking a cover-up by a major corporation – W.R. Grace. For a decade, Schneider investigated into the story by rooting himself into a town which has no local television station and whose community newspaper has never acquired the funds (or the will) to probe into the asbestos crisis story.
Schneider’s deep investigative work was followed by television news hot on the breaking coverage produced in the Seattle P.I. Major television outlets such as CNN and CBS ran a series of watered-down national television stories which never produced any investigative reporting to the level of the P.I. Schneider was the investigative reporter on this story. He had the time, resources and backing of a serious newspaper to allow him to move forward on any costly soil testing needed to be done, and other evidence which needed to be proven in order to even write a story.
Last year The Seattle P.I. shut down it’s print edition. Schneider, along with many others at the paper lost his job.
Why do I bring this up when discussing the need for print to survive, not just now, but within the foreseeable future? Because digital records don’t hold the same weight as print. While there is a definite need for the 24-hour micro-scoop news culture online, documents and work into probing investigations can easily become lost or discarded.
I sat down with several local residents of Libby who mentioned how they only get their news from the print editions. Particularly from large papers like The New York Times, Washington Post and what once was The Seattle P.I. Gordon Sullivan, a longtime Libby resident who owns a local bookstore called Cabinet Books & Music mentioned to me, “Not only does the vast majority of Libby get it’s news from printed newspapers, many people in this town still don’t have access to either computers or the internet.” As a go-to person for Andrew Schneider’s investigations into the area, I asked Sullivan how he personally followed Andrew’s series of stories. “Print”, he told me.
Sullivan has also been interviewed by national television news networks regarding the story as well. Two days before I interviewed him, CBS News was in town to do a segment on the Libby Asbestos crisis. “They asked me, with a straight face, ‘is there hope for Libby?'”, Sullivan mentioned. “That’s the difference between newspaper reporting and what you get in digital media. Filler questions versus hard-to-do investigative work.”
Over the course of this documentary we have met with several investigative reporters working in newspaper and television news who back this point up. “Print not only gives an article the attention it deserves, it also provides a tangible record of that event”, mentions Columbia journalism professor Andie Tucher. Investigative reporter Jeff Leen of The Washington Post mentioned, “Despite all the information we can now access online, there is still that need for record keeping. Even if Google was available in the 1980’s when I was investigating [the Medellín cartel], I still needed to actually see Pablo Escobar’s signature on those documents.” The same can be said of newspapers. “I’ve kept all the articles written on Libby, even from years ago, so that I can go back and check on things until I feel like I can burn them”, one Libby resident mentioned when discussing maintaining records of the asbestos crisis in the area.
The need for print editions of the newspaper are vital. For someone like Sulzberger to come out with a blanket statement such as “We will stop printing The New York Times sometime in the future”, is insane. Scale back perhaps. Once an established business model is set in place, reduce print circulation maybe …but don’t kill the medium.
Communities and readers who can’t afford an iPad, Kindle or even an internet connection depend on the printed paper to stay informed.