It’s about time newspapers started fighting back

The editor of the Tampa Tribune, Janet Coats, got the attention of her Facebook friends last Saturday when she posted this message: “Janet is preparing to fire a shot over the bow.” I figured Janet’s staff at the Tribune was about to score a scoop in the Sunday paper. But a quick check of Tampa Bay Online didn’t turn up anything that matched her provocative post.

Then I saw it. “This Newspaper Is Fighting Back.” And before I read on, a quick word came to mind: “Yes!!”

Much of the editorial by Janet and publisher Denise Palmer was aimed at squelching rumors that the Tribune was shutting down, and at scoring points against arch-rival St. Petersburg Times. But the part that got my attention was at the end, where the authors gave a full-throated defense of the heart of the Tampa Tribune – its local, watchdog reporting that residents can get nowhere else.

And my next thought was: It’s about time newspapers started fighting back.

You can see why few do. Criticism is coming at newspapers from every side these days. When that happens, it’s easy to hunker down and avoid another round of attacks. The problem with that, as every politician knows, is that unanswered attacks stand. And the fusillades against newspapers are coming in massive volleys these days, most of them unanswered.

God knows, they richly deserve a lot of it, and as an almost four-decade newspaperman, I deserve it, too. Newspapers have been too slow to change. Too arrogant in their interactions with customers. Too know-it-all smug. If they don’t survive – and some won’t – they (we) will bear considerable blame for their fate.

But the current crusading against mainstream media – from politicians, from Wall Street, from new-media experts and, well, practically everyone – goes over the top. I’ve been tempted lately to haul out the old button I got from a Republican convention in the 1980s that says: “It’s All My Fault. I’m From the Media.”

The idea that a biased media cost John McCain and Sarah Palin the presidential election is absurd. So is the assertion that nowhere in the business press was there an indication of trouble ahead for the United States economy. And so is the oft-made assertion that newspapers have become irrelevant and would be better off dying.

I think some new-media thinkers deserve multiple victory laps for understanding (some of them many years ago) the powerful forces that would devastate the business model for newspapers and broadcasters. A few of them saw with stunning precision the way in which the Internet would break the fortuitous partnership of advertising and news.

But some new-media leaders have decided to make “old media vs. new media” the dominant framework for viewing today’s convulsions, at the expense of the more important element that unites both old and new – the lifestream of news and information that the country runs on.

Today, despite newspapers’ precarious state, that lifestream still comes mainly from the nation’s 1,400 daily newspapers and 7,000 weeklies. And despite the accusations that fly at them daily, the tens of thousands of journalists who are responsible for this are doing honorable and vital work.

But it’s work that may be disappearing. I think it’s quite possible that a few years down the road, news and information will become available in substantially better, more democratic ways than have existed under the current model. But at heart it will be the same work done now – people digging up news and information that their fellow citizens want and need, whether it’s soccer results or corruption at City Hall. And at the moment it’s only a matter of speculation about when, how and whether the work of mainstream reporters will be effectively replaced, and what happens while we wait to find out.

Some new-media folks recognize this. But not many old-media people are talking about the critical importance of this information now because you get tarred with being a defensive Neanderthal if you dare.

Janet Coats and Denise Palmer dared.

A few days before publishing their “Fighting Back” editorial, Janet gave her Facebook friends another teaser. It said, “Janet is finding her old fighting spirit.”

Anyone else?