By Denise Tessier
Good news for journalism appeared on two fronts this past week.
On Monday (June 11), a quarter-page ad at the bottom of Albuquerque Journal Business Outlook announced that readership of the Sunday Journal rose 15 percent (from 338,863 adults to 390,801) over the previous year, and readership of the daily Albuquerque Journal inched up 3 percent (from 252,549 to 260,115).
These figures, provided by Scarborough Research to the Journal, might not sound like much, but can be viewed as an encouraging signal that a years-long downward fall in circulation numbers could be leveling off, at least for the state’s leading daily.
The other encouraging news arrived online, as Heath Haussamen of NMpolitics.net announced Wednesday (June 13) that he is helping to launch, with the help of journalist Trip Jennings and financial backing from two foundations, “a new organization dedicated to fostering, promoting and publishing public-interest journalism in New Mexico.”
New Mexico In Depth, which, according to Haussamen has been in the works two years, plans to start publishing later this year, its goal “to foster, promote and publish journalism in the public interest,” focusing on education, poverty, health and politics.
Jennings, who has reported for The Santa Fe New Mexican, New Mexico Independent and Albuquerque Journal, will serve as executive director, and Haussamen, who was a reporter and editor before starting “one of the best state politics blogs in the nation,” will serve as deputy director, while continuing to run NMPolitics.net.
What could be construed as a third positive development in J-biz news has been playing out nationally in recent months. As Journal writer Win Quigley reported in an UpFront Journal column Tuesday (June 12), Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway has been buying up dozens of newspapers.
The obvious implication is that Buffett considers newspapers a good investment.
Quigley wrote that Buffett “believes newspapers will do well if they remain the primary source of information about their communities and charge for online news,” adding:
Buffett is not a corporate raider. He doesn’t buy companies to strip them of their assets. He wants to own newspapers if they’re a good deal, and if they are good newspapers by his definition.
By his definition, Quigley explained, Buffet wants to own newspapers in “towns and cities with a strong sense of community,” because “if a citizenry cares little about its community, it will eventually care little about its newspaper.”
Some of the Journal’s Sunday circulation increase can be attributed, according to Scarborough Research’s own data, to coupon clippers buying multiple copies (for clippers, the Sunday paper pays for itself.)
But overall, the Journal’s increase in circulation numbers indicates, at least to this reader, that Albuquerque does have a strong sense of community. Despite the aggravation readers might feel (on both sides of the political aisle) when reading highly partisan opinion pieces or when encountering slant in a syndicated piece of writing posing as news, readers understand that they need the Journal (and other local New Mexico papers) to stay informed about what is going on in the communities they’ve chosen to call home.
And having worked with Jennings and Haussamen at the online New Mexico Independent, and in following their work since, I’ve seen first-hand that both are solid, probing journalists, committed to the ethics of their profession and to their home communities and state.
In the Money section of Buffett’s hometown newspaper, the Omaha World Herald, which Buffett now owns, reporter Steve Jordan put together reactions to Buffett’s view that community-invested newspapers can succeed and that print media has a future. It’s interesting reading, for a journalist at least.
Two of those quoted characterized Buffett as a misguided idealist. An arguable position came from Jeremy Bowman of the Motley Fool. He wrote:
Unlike national papers, local news covers events in which volunteers could easily substitute for trained journalists. Do you really need a cub reporter at a high school sports game scribbling notes and snapping pictures when plenty of parents would likely be happy to post a few pictures on Facebook or another website and summarize the game in a paragraph or two? Couldn’t a concerned citizen sitting in on a school board accomplish the same thing?
Uh, not always.
And New York University professor Clay Shirky said Buffett was misguided because “disruptive competition for ad dollars, not changing reader engagement. . .sent the industry into a tailspin. . . if all it took to run a profitable paper was good local coverage, newspapers would not be in this bind in the first place. …
Of course, Berkshire Hathaway was able to buy these newspapers because they’ve dropped so much in value – as Shirky said, at “fire-sale price.” So if his goal is holding steady – both financially and as a cornerstone for the community – my bets are on the thought that Buffett’s papers stand a good chance.
And his motives appear to be far from those of Rupert Murdoch, through whom we’ve seen the power, influence and dark side that can come with a billionaire controlling vast tracts of media.
In another piece for Omaha’s Money, before Buffett’s purchases took effect, Jordan reported that:
Warren Buffett has pledged a “hands-off” policy at Berkshire Hathaway Inc. newspapers and called for their editors and publishers to make their papers indispensable to anyone who cares about their city or town.
“You should treat public policy issues just as you have in the past,” he wrote in a letter e-mailed Wednesday to publishers and editors of the daily newspapers that Berkshire owns and those it plans to buy from Media General Inc.
And here’s the equally important part:
“I have some strong political views, but Berkshire owns the paper; I don’t. And Berkshire will always be non-political,” he wrote. (My emphasis added.)
(Lest one thinks ownership has nothing to do with editorial slant – or the killing of stories – one need only read this one example of interference – the antithesis of a journalism-based free press).
In his May letter, Buffett was already talking about the value of newspapers in community.
“I believe newspapers that intensively cover their communities will have a good future,” he wrote. “That will mean maintaining your news hole — a newspaper that reduces its coverage of the news important to its community is certain to reduce its readership as well — and thoroughly covering all aspects of area life, particularly local sports.”
He said no one has stopped reading “half-way through a story that was about them or their neighbors.”
How very true.
In bringing this news to local readers’ attention, Quigley noted that the Journal has changed with the times to include electronic applications, a redesigned website with news and videos and specialized information to attract niche readers. And the independently owned, local Journal was among the first to charge for online content, which is part of Buffett’s plans for his own papers.
Online, New Mexico In Depth promises to “produce its own investigative reports and forge partnerships with existing media outlets around New Mexico in a bid to nurture a culture of ambitious journalism that tackles big questions and complex issues,” according to Haussamen.
It’s an ambitious goal, and gratifying to see we have journalists in New Mexico willing to take on that goal with today’s limited resources.
In a Walter Cronkite clip, a link to which was provided by a commenter on Haussamen’s site, the venerated newsman is shown telling an interviewer news was getting a bit too jazzed up in trying to compete for viewers who want to be entertained, but he added:
The good journalists, the old journalists, the old timers in there — are fighting the good fight, trying to hold on to what we knew to be the good principals of journalism.
Add to that list some talented young journalists, and you have an apt description for Jennings, Haussamen and the majority of beat reporters and writers at the Albuquerque Journal, who are not interested in creating division but in finding answers.
When they succeed as true journalists, we all benefit as informed citizens, better able to come up with solutions to our problems.