April 8, 2009

Exhibit celebrates centuries of Michigan newspapers as industry swept up in change

This is just a piece of the cartoon done by David Horsey of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Please visit the original.
The failure of newspapers comes up in the most unlikely places - a breast cancer support group, a celebration of a 93rd birthday, the doctor's exam room. Yet, the possibility of hope also creeps into unexpected moments.

A non-journalism project has involved a fair amount of historical research. Still, I didn't expect to find a Michigan library celebrating two centuries of newspapers.

Week of change in Michigan
In Michigan, we've just finished the first week of Michigan's leading newspapers delivering only three print copies a week. It's the same week that the Ann Arbor community had public meetings to help shape the hybrid news organization that is coming there. And it's a week, where announcements on management changes for the Flint Journal, Bay City Times and Saginaw News coupled with daily print promotions on planned print products unveil just a hint of the new media for Michigan.

It's also the week that several granting organizations had deadlines for those seeking funding for new journalism products and a pair of bloggers release their predictions of how paying for online news might be a profitable venture.

So much to think about as the search for income in Michigan seems hopeless.

Press always in trouble
Perhaps the Clarke Historical Library was optimistic in sharing this quote in its celebration two centuries of newspapers in Michigan.
"I have never known the press to be out of trouble. The newspapers once were going to hell because of billboards, once because of magazines, once because of the automobile, once because of radio, once because of NRA, once because of social security . . . always going to pot because of something or other. . . . but once again the newspapers are developing a fighting mood. We are going to see changes; in management methods, in advertising approach and appeal, in circulation work, and [in] many other ways.- Anonymous newspaper publisher, 1942
But that quote, and the rest of a look at Michigan newspapers, reminds me that newspapers as we know them today haven't always been that way.

Indeed, a quick trip through the collection brought together for Celebrating 200 Years of Newspapers in Michigan uncovers enough to encourage the most depressed journalist to keep looking for solutions.

Only in America; only in Ann Arbor
When the exhibit was put together, the curator and writer had no idea that Ann Arbor would lose one newspaper and birth another news organization in 2009. That makes this piece in the chapter on early newspaper priceless:

"In 1836 Harriett Martineau, A British traveler who visited the United States and whose published account of her journey was generally critical of America, wrote specifically of Michigan newspapers:
At Ypsilanti, I picked up an Ann Arbor newspaper. It was badly printed; but its content were pretty good; and it could happen nowhere out of America, that so raw a settlement as Ann Arbor, where there is difficulty in procuring decent accommodations, should have a newspaper.[3]"
Editors once were businessmen, seeking extra income
Then, there's the role of editors, with Clarke Historical Library reminding us that prior to the Civil War most newspaper editors were trained as printers. A newspaper was, for them, often simply a way to keep the press busy between printing jobs. With no journalistic training, the editors published whatever was at hand, including items taken from other newspapers and partisan political material.

The editor was therefore, the embodiment of every requirement from the editor down and the devil up. He was type setter, job printer, foreman, business manager and pressman, as well as editor, and did not shrink for the duties of roller boy upon occasion.

- S. B. McCracken, writing in 1891,

Advertising changes content
A chapter on "the people's paper made profitable by advertisers dollar" reminds us that newspapers have changed before in response to the market as did the role of journalists. Adding ads meant a newspaper no longer needed to be so opinionated on every page; new journalists were trained to be "objective."
"These new reporters also brought a new sensibility to their job. They were generally schooled in the belief that reporters should approach their work, particularly anything involving politics, with neutrality. They should report the facts and let the public, or at least the editorial page writers, draw the conclusions. As one pioneering journalism textbook had it, the reporter’s job was to gather, “facts, facts, and more facts.”[86]"
There's much more in the online exhibit, including a look at why Booth Newspapers succeeded and the growth of the suburban newspapers.

It's the timing of the piece - the exhibit opened in February and remains through August - that encourages me to believe that the right product will be developed at the right time by the right people. Whether it is David McCoy meeting a brave man starting a newspaper or proving Howard Owens wrong about journalists and business plans, I'm optimistic tonight.


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