View From Lodi, CA Pittsburgh, PA: High School Paper Stops Publishing—What Does It Mean For Journalism?
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The end of Lodi High School's newspaper, The Flame, raises important questions about why so few students take journalism classes and why profession's future is so uncertain. [Lodi High Newspaper Scrapped Due to Budget, Lack of Interest, by Jennifer Bonnet, Lodi News-Sentinel, August 13, 2009]

The Flame's demise parallels the general decline in print journalism. Budgets are tight, readership has transferred its allegiance to the Internet and 24-hour cable television news programming.

Young readers have largely abandoned newspapers. Keeping up with breaking events on Blackberries or iPhones is more timely and convenient.

Although advances in technology are beyond the control of the mainstream journalism industry, many newspapers do their best to adjust to the changing conditions. The Lodi News-Sentinel, for example, posts Twitter updates throughout the day. Other newspapers have added regular blog features.

Newspapers, however, should look deep within themselves to understand why they have fallen so out of favor with the public.

For years, a central question has been whether newspapers have a liberal bias. And although some editors and publishers dispute the charge that their leaning is to the left, all indications are otherwise.

Americans' perception of the national media as too biased and too liberal have grown significantly over the past two decades.

During the last twenty-five years, since the "People and the Press" polls began routinely assessing the public's perceptions of the national media, the percentage of Americans who perceive a liberal bias has doubled from 22 percent to 45 percent, nearly half the adult population. Even Democrats now freely admit that the press is a liberal entity.

By the mid-1990s, the same survey found that the American public had become more critical of press practices, less enthusiastic about the news product and less appreciative of the watchdog role the media plays than it historically had been. 

Concurrent with the "People and the Press" survey, the American Society for Newspaper Editors launched a project to improve the credibility of newspapers and journalism but found three-fourths of the public (78 percent) agreed that the media is biased.

When asked specifically about the slant of their hometown newspaper, nearly half of the respondents (47 percent) said their local paper is more liberal than they are.

The logical outcome when corporations offer a product for sale that their audience doesn't appreciate is that the clients go elsewhere. That transition takes place over time. At first, readers continue to subscribe to follow local sports, obituaries and collect the weekly coupons. But eventually they leave.

Look at the major California dailies, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Sacramento Bee. All are unfailingly liberal but are also hemorrhaging circulation and red ink.

Some might argue that the cities those newspapers represent are overwhelmingly Democratic. As a result, the debate might conclude that papers are giving readership exactly what it wants.

But while it's true that big cities vote Democratic, more conservative Republicans poll nearly 40 percent in most elections.

When over time you lose 40 percent of your customer base, you'll go out of business.

Analyzing the quality of newspaper coverage becomes more complex because although readers have consistently criticized the end product, the majority of reporters remain convinced that they do a good job of presenting the facts in a fair and balanced manner.

If you doubt that most reporters are not pleased with themselves, then log onto any of their self-serving websites like the Society of Professional Journalists. You'll find that they give dozens of awards to each other all year long for the "outstanding" contributions they make to their profession.

In most businesses, the customer is always right. But while newspapers pay lip service to their readers (many have ombudsmen or readers' representatives), they march to their own drummer.

The crucial question some newspapers should ask is whether they react to their readers' opinions with quiet contempt.

The sad answer for too many is: yes.

Joe Guzzardi [email him] is a California native who recently fled the state because of over-immigration, over-population and a rapidly deteriorating quality of life. He has moved to Pittsburgh, PA where the air is clean and the growth rate stable. A long-time instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, Guzzardi has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.

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