Extra, extra: Newspapers are not dying

Lexington Herald-Leader publisher Tim Kelly
Lexington Herald-Leader publisher Tim Kelly

Radio evangelist Harold Camping was positive the world would end May 21. Fifteen days later and here we are, still alive and kicking.

Now he says the end will come Oct. 21. I'm taking bets it doesn't happen then, either. That simply will not do — it's a Friday during Keeneland's fall meet, and there are dining room reservations to be made and classes to be skipped.

Predictions of the end of days probably started not long after Cain and Abel had their falling out. And it seems people have been predicting the end of newspapers since, oh, about the time of Nostradamus.

That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but only a bit. I have heard it ever since I got my first newspaper job in my hometown of Ashland in 1965. That was during the technological Dark Ages of typewriters, scissors, gluepots, hot metal type and a clattering Associated Press machine delivering news at the then-astonishing rate of 66 words per minute.

To be sure, many daily newspapers have disappeared in the intervening years, mostly in larger cities where two or more — sometimes many more — once published.

But only one Kentucky daily newspaper has gone out of business in nearly 25 years. The Kentucky Post and its sister, The Cincinnati Post, died in 2007 with the expiration of their parent Scripps Howard's longstanding joint operating agreement with Gannett, which owns The Cincinnati Enquirer. Prior to that, the most notable Kentucky dailies to be shuttered were the afternoon papers in Lexington and Louisville in 1983 and 1987, respectively.

And, according to David Thompson of the Kentucky Press Association, there are 122 non-daily newspapers in Kentucky right now, only one fewer than 15 years ago.

Not exactly a rush to extinction.

Many things were supposed to have killed newspapers — radio, the talkies, network television, cable. Those were followed by the advent of desktop publishing and the proliferation of niche publications, many of them free.

Through it all, newspapers survived and generally prospered.

But the World Wide Web changed everything starting in the 1990s, and newspapers had to change, too. Big-time. First came the rush to create Web sites like Kentucky.com and advertising networks like Cars.com and CareerBuilder.com, then exact eEdition replicas of the print product, followed by mobile delivery, the use of Facebook and Twitter, and now apps for iPads, Kindles, Nooks, etc.

These aren't your grandparents' newspapers anymore. The daily papers that many people grew up with were like the muscle-car era of Detroit. Fat with profits, but heavy on the cost side, too.

It is a time of great experimentation, change and transition. The ultimate question is: a transition to what? Already, newspapers have become more like the Toyota Prius, smaller and more nimble, with a hybrid of old and new technologies, of print and online. Will they remain a hybrid for a long time? Or will they go from being like a Prius to a Nissan Leaf or a Chevrolet Volt, all-electronic? If so, when? Or will they become something else entirely?

I'm betting on the hybrid model for the foreseeable future. But I'll be rooting from the sideline for those who come after me to figure it all out for the long haul. They must. As much as some people, especially those in power, would like for newspapers to just go away, a caution: Be careful what you wish for.

Over the years, many of the watchdog, public-service journalism projects done by the Herald-Leader and newspapers across the country have produced real results, and they continue to do so.

I believe as strongly as ever that what newspapers do is vitally important to our democratic society. The fragmented voices of the Web, for all their attributes, are no substitute for professionally produced and edited journalism that is beholden to no one. In a fractionalized media world with hundreds of cable channels and an untold number of Web sites and blogs, scale still matters when it comes to having impact.

And scale we have. This organization's combined print-online audience is more than half a million people in what's called the Designated Market Area of 40 counties. Kentucky.com alone draws more than 10 million page views and nearly 1.5 million unique users from all over the world every month.

But, as noted above, it is a time of change, and this will be my last column as publisher of the Herald-Leader, a position that has been my privilege to hold for nearly 15 years. Rufus Friday, publisher of McClatchy's Tri-City Herald in eastern Washington, takes over on Monday.

My sincerest thanks to the readers and the advertisers who have supported us and continue to do so; to all of our employees past and present, and to the truckers and carriers who brave the roads and the elements to bring the Lexington Herald-Leader to more than half of this fascinating state every day.