On Wednesday, Nov. 9, Paul Chaffee addressed a group of students, professors, faculty and administration, including SVSU President Donald Bachand, discussing many aspects of the newspaper business and answering questions about everything from literature to social media.
The students were mostly business majors from Delta Sigma Pi, a business fraternity led by fourth year business management major Natalie Schneider. The event took place from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. in Curtiss Hall Seminar Room F.
Chaffee graduated from the University of Minnesota College of Journalism and has worked in the newspaper industry for nearly half a century. He presently owns Paul C. Chaffee LLC Executive Communications Consultation.
During Chaffee’s time in Saginaw, journalism was a booming business that offered reporters and editors full pensions, employer match 401Ks, health care insurance and generous vacations. The newspapers did not owe their profits to the sales revenue of the paper itself but rather the money they earned through advertising. Businesses and consumers alike looked to the local newspapers for information on the market. When Chaffee began his career in Grand Rapids, he witnessed days when the press actually turned away advertisers because the equipment could only print so many pages. Even the chamber of commerce relied on ad and sponsor support to fund operations.
There were a few factors that played a part in the newspaper’s steady decline, Chaffee said. National chain restaurants and retailers supplanted local businesses. These chain stores had plenty of other advertising methods, especially as technology created new forms of social media communication.
Another aspect Chaffee discussed is that the old-fashioned publishing industry was expensive. Paper manufacture, overseas shipment, truck delivery and a brick-and-mortar headquarters were physical necessities. The human capital was even more expensive. Not only were talented writers and editors paid handsome salaries, but so were the specialized machine operators who ran the press equipment. In addition, the price of the paper remained the exact same as it was in the 19th century.
Whether or not journalism is better of transitioning to the Web was Chaffee’s next topic of discussion. This is a complex and multifaceted topic, but Chaffee presented several compelling reasons for the old, physical-paper-in-hand communication.
He argued that the changes in news communications over the past couple of decades have resulted in a lack of accountability for journalists and reporters, decreasing civility that used to be the norm for formal news reporting and ultimately a flooded market of (often conflicting) information.
The newspaper industry is struggling because online journals and publications are flooding the market with so much information that buying a physical paper is obsolete for most people, Chaffee said.
Advertisement revenue decreased by more than 50 percent between 2006 and 2012. Social media has allowed anyone to report “news,” and looking on Facebook or Twitter is far easier than picking up a paper, he explained.
The ethics of news reporting have changed as well. Whereas local newspapers focused on school board committees, townships, tax review boards, road and drain commissions, local school sports teams and art fairs, most news reporting now is exaggerated and attention seeking, Chaffee held.
“You should be scared that local institutions and businesses have lost an important window to the communities they serve,” Chaffee said. “A main function of the paper has always been to reflect a community back to itself. The good things to take pride in, the talent to celebrate, the exceptional people to congratulate and the problems that need fixing. The newspaper was a cohesive and uniting force. It helped citizens feel a sense of belonging.”