CHANGE AT THE SYRACUSE NEWSPAPER
My grandmother taught me my letters, and ultimately to read, from the pages of the “Evening Tribune.”
We sat in the gas station where she kept the books and, between rings of the pneumatic hose in front of the pumps, she pointed to the letters in the words and taught me their names and their sounds.
When I went to kindergarten, I printed in serif, with little feet and curleycues on the letters, just the way I’d learned from the font in the newspaper.
Years later, I became a sports reporter for the “Evening Tribune,” and for the first dozen years of my adulthood I made my living as a newspaper reporter and columnist.
My wife is a former newspaper reporter, who spent years of her childhood pouring over yellowed, bound copies of her hometown’s pioneer newspaper.
And yet we don’t get a paper at the house, and my younger children may never have actually handled a newspaper. Where once I proudly paraded my children past newspaper boxes that carried my work, now the actual ink-on-paper product is a rarity in our home and lives.
And still I am stunned.
As word broke yesterday that the venerable Syracuse “Post-Standard” was essentially cutting half of its print edition in a dramatic move to keep its doors open, I felt sick to my stomach.
It’s like watching a relative die.
Not that I have a long and emotional relationship with the “Post-Standard,” but it is a bellwether for an industry and an institution that I love, and which has played such a fundamental role in American culture and civilization.
In an industry gutted by changes in advertising and readership – and in the very nature of the society it serves – the “Post-Standard” is one of the first papers to, in an act of pure desperation, leap with both feet into the netherworld of technology.
It will focus itself on phones and pads and computers, and push away from ink and paper. The newspaper will no longer include much paper. Soon, in all likelihood, it will include none at all.
The plan set to roll out with the new year will reduce home delivery to three days a week – the advertiser-preferred Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday editions. There will be a printed edition the remaining four days of the week, but it will be much smaller, it will be available only at newsstands, and it will be sold only in the core circulation area of Onondaga County.
Further, the newspaper will split into two separate companies, and the reporting half of the operation – which will produce the “Post-Standard” and Syracuse.com – will move away from the paper’s iconic headquarters next to Clinton Square in downtown Syracuse.
There will be layoffs.
And there will be make-it-up-as-you-go ventures into more and better digital products.
The paper’s editor and publisher is quoted saying, “It’s very clear, if we do nothing, we’re doomed.”
And he would know. He and his dad have a combined half century of running the paper. The city – like many – has a newspaper tradition running back to the early 1800s.
And it comes to this.
Older subscribers, faithful to the paper for decades, will be out in the cold. Those who don’t have smart phones, or easy access to computers, will essentially be cut off from the typically strong reporting of the region’s dominant news source. The habits of a lifetime will be, in large part, destroyed as the paper on the porch becomes the buggy whip of our day.
The change may be especially jarring in Syracuse, where the paper’s ownership and history, and culture of reporting, make it particularly authoritative. The “Post-Standard” can come off as having its nose in the air, particularly when associated with the equally self-confident Newhouse School at nearby Syracuse University, but it does real and important journalism in a community where the politicians tend to need someone looking over their shoulder.
Beyond the Syracuse paper, the region’s news needs are served, essentially, by two television newsrooms, the radio station that employs me, and a scattering of small and economically shaky newspapers. All of the organizations operate in the reality that Syracuse is a relatively small news market, especially for broadcasting, and is subject to the limits of time, money and talent that characterize all small markets.
Put another way, the bulk of the region’s real reporters and real reporting are at the “Post-Standard,” and if that goes away, so does much of Central New York’s news function.
The “Post-Standard” serves its community in a way not many newspapers do anymore. It holds on to a type of newspaper reporting that has faded, sadly, from our society.
The change is not just about technology. It is, of course, about money. Newspapers, obviously, have to be able to pay the bills. They have to operate on a model that makes them profitable. The Internet’s gutting of traditional newspaper advertising has made the old model unsustainable.
Switching technology – from paper to pad – will serve new readers, but it may not re-attract old advertisers. It may be convenient for the reader, but it may not make money for the paper. It may not, therefore, solve the problem.
Only time will tell.
God bless the “Post-Standard" as it tries to find out.
And God bless Central New York as it tries to adjust.
- by Bob Lonsberry © 2012