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The evolution and passing of a 'friend'

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Published on: Wednesday, April 10, 2013

By Robert Stack

We have just lost another friend. Who is this “friend”? It is the newspaper, both national and local. It’s who we are so fickle about: we love it, we hate it, it’s too liberal, it’s too conservative, and it misspells words. Yet, it is the same entity that has been so instrumental in the growth of our nation.

We are witnessing the end of an era, the printing of news on paper, which began in 1440 with Johannes Gutenberg’s world changing accomplishment. We have refined the newsprint medium over the generations and are now entering another period of refinement. The newspaper is morphing at lightning speed into a new form at the click of a button. So it is fitting to pause and appreciate what has existed and then adapt to what is evolving.

Think for a moment what you can do with a newspaper: dog-ear a page and easily flip back to it; quickly get the big picture of the news; see an entire page at once, then focus in on an article of interest; read local news, community happenings, items for sale that range from homes to hammers to hogs; look for employment; pull a section apart and hand pages to others to read; fold it up and stick it in your back pocket to later share with others; put it on the bottom of a bird cage; fall asleep and have it fall to the floor with no damage and easily recycle it.

What does this changing mean to the industry and us?

At stake is the loss of credible reporting, the paper’s foundation. Newspapers in the past expected their reporters to go through a process to produce quality work as they became apprentices, cub reporters and seasoned veterans. They had city editors who demanded multiple sources before running a story. We respected the likes of Lincoln Steffens and Woodward and Bernstein, whether we agreed with them or not.

Now with our new electronic media, each of us can be a “reporter.” We can reach out for more stories and suddenly the world is our audience. We can create our own on-the-spot “news” and we can throw any information into the air (waves).

On the flipside, as readers, how are we to know the validly of the article? What is fact? What is merely opinion passed as fact? What is the screening mechanism to ensure an article is true to the readers? In short, what accountability is there? This component is yet to be dealt with.

We have heard of the number of papers that have passed on and the ones balancing on the brink. What we don’t realize are the great numbers that have closed departments or cut staff.

Newspapers have long realized that the writing was on the wall. In an effort to delay the inevitable, they have raised prices; stopped deliveries to porches; changed formats as The New York Times did by merging sections or USA Today’s cartoon-like presentation of graphs and charts or the staid Wall Street Journal now with colored pictures on the front page; reduced the physical size to make it more convenient as the Air Force Times has done or simply eliminated portions to “streamline news for you.” Newspapers have also created websites and allowed bloggers into the paper, all to keep our interest. Even the National Enquirer has a website.

All of these measures, around the country, have been designed to prolong the inevitable: the morphing of print news into cyber news. As with any change, it is difficult. We hold on, we cherish what was familiar, we resist and eventually we change.          

I am not attempting to hurry the process, only trying to take the remaining time to appreciate and enjoy my “friend” before its passing.

Robert Stack, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, grew up in Lanham and graduated from DuVal High School. He now resides in Greeley, Colo., and enjoys reading his newspapers every morning.

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