Mike Tharp: Giving you the world -- in every way possible

October 15, 2011 

We knew the world was changing. We just didn't know how much and how fast.

"We" being the folks in the news business. All of us in the so-called legacy media have been dealing with unprecedented challenges as the Internet has made our traditional business models shaky. Modesty aside, the news business harbors some mighty smart people, and they've been conjuring strategies and solutions for a decade.

Newspapers still lead the way when it comes to reaching readers worldwide, according to a new report from the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. Newspapers reach 20 percent more people worldwide on a typical day than the Internet reaches at any time, according to WAN-IFRA's latest update of world press trends. In terms of readership, papers reach 2.3 billion people every day, while the Internet reaches only 1.9 billion, according to the report.

Still, the challenge of reaching and keeping younger American readers was brought home like a ball-peen hammer blow when a friend sent a note last week. Richard Kipling was a terrific reporter and editor at the Los Angeles Times for two decades, and today is an editor with the USC Annenberg School's California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting. The Sun-Star has published two game-changing series with the center, and Richard's been to Merced several times.

Here's what he wrote:

"I'm teaching journalistic writing at (a prestigious Southern California university) this fall and I require the kids to read, analyze and bring to class the print edition of every Monday's L.A. Times. Well, this past Monday, a student raises her hand and says, 'I know you said there are no stupid questions, but this may be one. How, exactly, do you read a print edition paper?' The other six class members nodded in agreement. How do you hold it? How do you prevent some of it from slipping out? How do you find the rest of the story when it doesn't end on the page? How can you tell which story is which when the headlines inside don't match the ones at the beginning of the story? Wow ... the generational divide has never been wider."

And this week LaughingSquid.com reported that Jean-Louis Constanza posted a video titled "A Magazine Is an iPad That Does Not Work," featuring a 1-year old baby trying to manipulate a traditional paper magazine like a touchscreen Apple iPad. And, no, it didn't work.

Some of us newsies think that as long as the baby boomer generation (those born in 1946 and later) stick around, we can rely on a print audience. People who like to hold a newspaper in their hands each morning as they read and drink their coffee.

But we woke up and smelled the coffee about the future of journalism. You, our audience, are lucky because McClatchy has turned the fire hose of its creativity on the challenge of getting you the news and information you want, however you want it -- whatever the platform.

Our McClatchy netheads have found that half the U.S. mobile population uses mobile media (to browse the Web or download content) and that 55 percent of people who use digital tablets are male, with 30 percent of them age 25 to 34 (prime ad turf). Nearly three out of five tablet owners consume news on them.

So every McClatchy newsroom in the country is tweeting, Facebooking, filing stories and breaking news with iPads and smart phones and using every bit and byte we can to bring you the news in whatever form you wish to use it. Leading the tech charge here is our own Merlin, online editor Brandon Bowers, who conjures stories, blogs, tweets and other cyber information every day.

We at the Sun-Star already know that many boomers like to hang out on our website and place their trenchant comments online.

Good deal! Keep it up! It's all part of the conversation.

But speaking to a bunch of UC Merced and local high school journalists last Saturday at a "Media and Journalism Seminar" at UC Merced, it felt right to remind them of GIGO -- garbage in, garbage out. That if your content sucks, it doesn't matter if you place it on a warp drive or transporter or dilithium crystals.

Content is king. It rules our newsroom and any worth its name. So we're not too worried about when our fish wrap or birdcage liner goes the way of the Linotype. We'll still be doing our watchdog journalism, shining the light, holding folks accountable and trying to inform and entertain with our public service journalism.

Our jobs come down to storytelling. Tracy Dahlby, now a professor at the University of Texas and a longtime foreign correspondent (he taught our reporter Ameera Butt at UT) wrote a wonderful column in the Austin-American Statesman about our unchanged role as storytellers.

He described his grandmother, Alice Brasfield, in Washington state:

"Home-cooked stories, on the other hand, tell us about what it means to be human, with the accompanying idiosyncrasies and contradictions the term implies, and the more human the setting, the more the message is likely to sink in. Back in Alice's parlor, for example, having iced the competition from TV, she'd typically give her rocker a defiant rock and then use the moment she'd wrested from technology to introduce me to tales of the strivers and shirkers, saints and oddballs that inhabit our family tree."

Bet you'd enjoy reading, hearing or seeing Alice on any ol' platform.

Or on one yet to be invented.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com

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