Tim Giago: Newspaper business should take a look at past

Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© 2012 Unity South Dakota

When radio appeared on the national scene in the early 1900s speculation began about its impact on the newspaper industry.

In the end radio never tried to compete against newspapers but instead took its own route and has evolved to where the current format focuses on talk shows like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham. National Public Radio has followed the path of newspapers more closely by reporting the news from an independent perspective. Because NPR does not necessarily follow a political pattern, it is often accused of being a liberal media.

The major newspapers did not try to compete with nor emulate radio but instead stuck to the format that made them successful. And then along came television and many pundits predicted that newspapers would diminish in importance or die out altogether. A young co-ed named Susan Hurrah from San Jose, California once quipped, “I’m going home and catch my half-hour newspaper on my TV set.” With its evening news that was national and local, television did attempt to compete against newspapers.

But once again newspapers not only held their ground, but actually experienced extreme growth in televisions heyday. A newspaper like USA Today made its debut in the 1980s and soon became one of the largest newspapers in America. Nearly every newspaper changed its layout and design to emulate television. USA Today went to a more television type format with a lot of great photos and colorful graphs and charts. It also started to include many very short news articles so much so that some began to call it “MacPaper.”

A South Dakotan named Allen Neuharth had a vision of a national newspaper and against all odds USA Today is still holding its own. A man named Rupert Murdoch purchased the Wall Street Journal and has pushed it to the lead in circulation of all major newspapers. Considered a maverick and a conservative, Murdoch’s chain of newspapers landed in troubled waters recently with the revelations of phone tapping and other illegal methods of getting private information for his tabloids. But Murdoch will withstand these problems and continue to be one of the biggest newspaper publishers in the world. How he does it should serve as an example for all other newspaper magnates.

But along came the Internet and newspaper publishers did a complete back flip. Instead of continuing as they had for 200 years as news vehicles that competed with radio and television by becoming more relevant, newspaper publishers decided to follow the path of the Internet and join it.

There were no cries of “extra, extra” on the streets of New York, but instead there were messages in the newspapers pushing people to join them on their websites. And for far too long the websites were free pushing away subscribers of the daily newspapers. Circulation numbers dwindled rapidly and advertising revenues, the life blood of newspapers, also went into the tank. This double-hit brought about the death knell of far too many daily newspapers. Instead of looking at the Internet as a challenge to their existence as they did when radio and television threatened, newspapers instead joined the very villain about to bring them down.

Three years ago on April 1, 2009, my weekly newspaper Native Sun News hit the newsstands in South Dakota. The staff and management of the newspaper decided not to go on the Internet in a big way, but instead just show our front page, our editorial and our editorial cartoon. This was kind of a teaser because when people went to our website they saw a front page with good articles that usually jumped to another page. In order to see “the rest of the story” they had to subscribe. Did it work? In less than three years Native Sun News became the largest weekly newspaper in South Dakota, a state with many, many weekly newspapers.

It is a long proven fact that newspapers are not making money on the Internet. Then why do they keep giving away the news that people were more than willing to pay for?

What would happen if every newspaper in America dropped off of the Internet and went back to concentrating their news coverage on the communities they served so successfully for so many years? Would the Tucson Citizen, Rocky Mountain News or the Seattle Post-Intelligencer still be publishing if they had remained true to their beginnings?

It is a question that offers food for thought. Perhaps some of us Lakota people are just plain old-fashioned, but the growth and success of a small weekly newspaper that is owned and operated by the Lakota people, a newspaper that continues to grow, is any indicator of surviving without going on the Internet, perhaps it is a method that should be studied by the big boys.

The fact of the matter is that although I am now retired, I continue to love the newspaper business and I believe it should look to its past in order to find its future.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is President of Unity South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the founder of The Lakota Times, Indian Country Today, Lakota Journal and Native Sun News. He can be reached at UnitySoDak1@knology.net

More from Tim Giago:
Tim Giago: Lakota views missing from Keystone XL debate (3/12)
Tim Giago: Religion caused near destruction of Lakota families (3/5)
Tim Giago: Inspiring a new generation of Native Americans (2/27)
Tim Giago: South Dakota law aimed at Indian abuse victims (2/20)
Tim Giago: Indians as mascots for America's fun and games (2/13)
Tim Giago: Cobell settlement just another government rip-off (2/6)
Tim Giago: Rosebud constitution should be 'law of the land' (1/30)
Tim Giago: Reservation among poorest counties in America (1/23)
Tim Giago: Alcohol is a red flag that has been waving too long (1/16)
Tim Giago: The new year brings time for a couple of apologies (1/9)

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