Small town newspapers, journalists still deliver

in Voices by

By Charles Bierbauer
As a teenager in Pennsylvania, I delivered The Morning Call and The Evening Chronicle to customers in a suburb of Allentown. On rainy days, I’d try to make sure the paper stayed dry inside the screen door. Now, I get The State and The New York Times delivered to my driveway in plastic bags, though the Times delivery is erratic. I can, of course, also read the Times on my iPhone, iPad and desk top computer.
As disseminators of news, we still deliver. True, some choose to call us “content providers,” as though news were an anachronistic four-letter word,
There is no question that the industry has gone through a seismic transformation, though an industry built on the transitory nature of events should hardly be static itself. A recent Reynolds Journalism Institute survey shows publishers across the country are largely optimistic about the business, including its paper-and-ink editions.
Most noteworthy, publishers of papers with smaller circulation are the most positive. They are, like many of you, serving communities that are best reached through the local newspaper. Whether daily, weekly or something in between, it’s the newspaper that delivers what’s happening at city hall, on Main Street and on the local ball fields. Local television can’t match that; radio is nearly nonexistent, alas. Broadcast media are best at weather and traffic, though you might keep pace with Twitter and a swift, interactive website.
The challenge, however, is to ensure that the jobs in those smaller or mid-sized markets are meaningful and rewarding. At a time when a teenager may have more Facebook “friends” than a small town paper has readers, how are we competing to hire better journalists to tell more compelling stories? What will make them stay once they’ve got a handle on your community?
Part of my job as dean of a communications college is to assure prospective students — not to mention their parents — that journalism is still a viable profession. I wouldn’t say that if I did not believe it. The appeal should lie in the dynamic of the profession as it is now practiced across media. I tell those students they certainly don’t want yesterday’s job, probably don’t want today’s job, and I can’t quite tell them what the job they really want will look like when they graduate in four years. But it should not be diminished by the fact the delivery system is changed. Editors and news directors still tell me “content is king.”
Year after year, though, we have bright-eyed 18-year-olds who want to be journalists. Yes, print journalists, though we are, frankly, deleting the distinctions across media. Our faculty has significantly revised our curriculum for all disciplines to strengthen writing for a variety of media and maximize flexibility, yet allow students to find a focus. We’ve got to deliver so you’ll continue to deliver.
Charles Bierbauer is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina. As a journalist, he worked as a television, radio, wire service, web and newspaper reporter.