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End of newspapers not happening here

Posted: May 25, 2012 2:01 p.m.
Updated: May 28, 2012 5:00 a.m.

The tough news came down Thursday morning: two more major American newspapers were cutting staff and cutting back on print editions: the (New Orleans) Times-Picayune and The Birmingham (Ala.) News.

Both papers will move from daily publishing to three times a week -- a decision made decades ago here at the C-I. Both the Times-Picayune and Birmingham News maintain websites but, as we all know, the conversion from print to Web hasn’t been the national success the newspaper industry had hoped it would be.

The New Orleans and Birmingham news was countered somewhat by uberinvestor Warren Buffett’s recent decision to purchase all of Media General’s newspapers for $142 million. That’s 63 daily and weekly papers in Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama and -- you guessed it -- South Carolina, in the Pee Dee. He says he may buy even more papers. What do they all have in common? They’re community papers, just like the C-I. I think Buffett knows a good thing when he sees one.

In the meantime, like the C-I, many newspapers across the country (including major outlets) are moving to paywalls where those who wish to read news content online must pay to do so. As we realized when we created our website, publishers are now beginning to help readers understand that news content has value regardless of where it appears. If you spend money to read a printed newspaper, why shouldn’t you pay to read that content online?

That argument is being played out in many markets, but still hasn’t become the norm quite yet. I don’t know what the Times-Picayune and Birmingham News’ respective website reaches are, but I think I can safely say this: probably not as many people read the news on their websites as those who read their papers.

And that’s what makes their respective companies’ decisions so sad, especially when it comes to the Times-Picayune. This is the same paper that earned two Pulitzer prizes in 2006, one each for public service and breaking news reporting.

The paper won those awards for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. If there was one thing -- aside from basic human stalwartness -- that held New Orleans together in those terrible days, it was The Times-Picayune.

Wikipedia.com tells the story, which I remember confirming back in 2005: Staff members rode out Katrina in sleeping bags and air mattresses at the paper’s office, posting continuous updates on its website. They evacuated a couple of days later, began producing an electronic “newspaper,” and opened up its forums and blogs to people looking for help, offering help and looking for loved one.

After three days of online-only publication, it began printing again. Not long after the storm, the Columbia Journalism Review reported on how the Times-Picayune “did it.”

Consider this concerning one of the paper’s September 2005 editions, after the storm: “Already, trickles of people are beginning to move back into certain pockets of the city’s surrounding communities, and displaced residents upstate are demanding to know where their hometown paper is.”

The website may have been up and running, but what did that mean to thousands of people without Internet access due to the long-lasting effects of Katrina?

Heck, although I can’t find it now, I seem to remember reading anecdotes about how early post-Katrina editions of the paper -- perhaps the PDF versions that appeared online in the first days after the storm -- were passed around by hand.

People wanted to know what was going on and knew the only way they could get the full, real story was through The Times-Picayune. Just as we maintain here at the C-I, the paper is part of the community; take it away and you have lost something just as precious as the power pole that brought electricity to your house.

While not as well known as The Times-Picayune, The Birmingham News is one of the oldest papers in the country, founded in March 1888.

It, too, has earned Pulitzers: 1991 for editorial writing and 2007 for investigative reporting exposing corruption in Alabaman’s two-year college system). It was also a finalist in the editorial writing category for the 2006 Pulitzers.

The paper invested in a new $25 million, four-story building just six years ago.

Beyond that, I don’t know much about The Birmingham News. The only other thing I can say is that Thursday’s news included similar cuts at sister papers in Mobile and Huntsville Alabama.

There is no doubt that times have been tough for newspapers on the national stage. Papers in medium to large markets have suffered horribly, repeatedly cutting staff, reducing print runs, moving to the Web altogether or just shutting down for good.

What the crisis has shown, however, is a real desire for local, hometown, community news. If people want to know what’s happening in Washington or Beirut, they have TV, cable and Internet news outlets.

But most people want to know what’s happening in their town, in their neighborhood, just beyond their backyard.

That’s why we’re here.

It’s also why we’re thriving. The C-I is one of nine publications of Camden Media Co., which recently began including a quarterly magazine for Camden’s special equine community.

The C-I and West Wateree Chronicle are headed by staff who live in -- and, personally speaking -- have no plans to leave.

We are part of the community and, therefore, care about it, and we put that care into our reporting.

So, shed a little tear for the folks in New Orleans and Birmingham, but I also hope you’ll keep smiling at the fact that the C-I’s been here for more than 120 years, is here now, and will be here for a long time to come.

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