A Paperless Society

Rafael Alvarez talks about the current state of newspapers. Alvarez is a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun

In an age where the internet and forms of social media are booming, newspapers continue to fold as industry leaders question the future of print journalism.

“We will see a handful of papers survive on paper over the next 20 years,” said Rafael Alvarez, who worked on The Baltimore Sun’s city desk from 1981 to 2001. “The rest will be mutations or reinventions of what a newspaper once delivered in the form of web sites.”

Statistics support Alvarez’s prediction. From 2008 to 2009 alone, print revenues in the United States dropped by 30.15 percent, losing $6.16 billion.

The numbers indicate a staggering decline in readership, but not all readers are disappearing. Some are migrating toward online avenues. According to The Newspaper Association of America, newspaper publishers attract about 64.6 percent of all internet users.

Still, Alvarez says, there are casualties in the transition from print to online journalism. Readers have lost their attention span and have lost the thrill of a good read.

“The model for how we do journalism has changed,” he said. “A few paragraphs are now replaced by quick hits of content.”

Writers and editors like Rafael Alvarez have become victims in the downsizing and newsroom buyout practices that have occurred nationwide. The news itself also has taken a big hit.

Steve Auerweck, who spent more than 24 years working for The Baltimore Sun as an editor and manager of newsroom technology, believes that we have lost an experienced perspective as the newsroom staff has become younger.

“That causes the institutional memory to fade and deprives the readers of the experienced perspective that will remember, say, that a given proposal was tried 20 years ago and failed miserably,” Auerweck said.

“Saying that people now get their news from the net doesn’t really capture the problem,” he added. “It’s more like people finding a million niche sources of information and opinion and caring less about the shared agenda that was provided by a strong local newspaper.”

The Baltimore Sun, the lone remaining strong local newspaper, is a striking example of print journalism’s decline and the benefits we have lost from having a wider news base. A paper that had eight foreign bureaus in the 90’s, The Sun no longer has any. A paper once rich with a staff full of educated and experienced writers, The Sun now has only two copy editors.

According to Fred Rasmussen, who has been with The Baltimore Sun for over 35 years, the decision to scale back staff and downsize operations has taken its toll on news coverage.

“We no longer have county bureaus (both morning and evening) in Baltimore, Carroll, Anne Arundel, Harford and Carroll counties,” Rasmussen said. “We no longer have an Eastern Shore correspondent. We have one reporter, Matthew Hay Brown, in the Tribune’s Washington Bureau. Formerly, The Sun had its own extensive bureau in Washington.”

With fewer reporters covering local aspects of the news, papers have to rely on other means to get their content, usually wire service copy such as the Associated Press. The results are noticeable.

“As the paper chopped and chopped, it lost much of its local flavor as well and started to use more and more stories written by its affiliates in other cities,” said former Sun copy editor Norine Schiller. “So not only have readers lost that international perspective that the paper did so well, they have now lost much of the local content. So what is left?”

The short handedness of the newsroom also has left less room for investigative journalism. Papers no longer have the manpower to be watchdogs, which is the primary role of the fourth estate.

“The paper took a lot of pride in finding the corruption and rooting it out, instead of responding to things that already happened,” said David Ettlin, who spent 40 years as a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Sun.

“The Sun makes a big deal about doing investigative journalism stories,” said Ettlin. “How often do you see them?”

The combination of newsroom cuts and buyouts may not be felt by some, but to avid readers and writers the changes cut deep.

“Ever since industrialization, each new invention has shrunk our attention span,” Alvarez said. “There’s an aesthetic that’s been lost and there’s a serenity that’s been lost.”

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