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Talk: Newspapers in peril, but likely to survive

A retired editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, Evanstonian Ralph Otwell, sees a newspaper industry that faces huge obstacles, but is not yet ready to fold.

Speaking to a packed house at the Men’s Club of the North Shore Senior Center in Northfield on Tuesday, Otwell ticked off a number of statistics that point to a newspaper industry in decline: total revenues down 41 percent the last three years, 25 percent fewer employees, capital intensive, labor-intensive, heavily unionized, with a stable of highly paid specialists.

In the early 1990s, he said, the Cyber Age arrived, and websites like Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, Craigslist, and Google began siphoning off both readers and advertisers.

Yet Otwell predicts that newspapers will find a way to recover their revenues sufficiently to enable them to continue financing the coverage of news. Some newspapers, he noted, have experimented with so-called “pay walls,” whereby a small amount of content is available on their websites for free, but to get the full story, the reader pays for additional content.

He said, however, that he does not have a great deal of confidence that pay walls will work sufficiently to make up the lost revenues or to subsidize the enormous costs of newsgathering, such as the establishment of foreign news bureaus. He said the New York Times contends it costs $2 million a year to operate a news bureau in Baghdad, Iraq.

He told this reporter after his talk that other potential solutions have been talked about among news executives. One source of revenue, he said, might be non-profit organizations that are willing to provide grants to news organizations to sponsor expensive investigative reporting. Free content might be provided, he added, by volunteer “citizen journalists.”

Otwell concluded in his talk that “yes, there will always be newspapers, although they are likely to be smaller and more expensive than they are today.” He noted, furthermore, that “some people are uncomfortable with the web.”

Otwell is a 1951 graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and served for 12 years as managing editor and then editor of the Sun Times. He retired in the early 1980s when Field Enterprises sold the paper to Rupert Murdoch.

Inducted into Medill’s Hall of Achievement in 1997, he has been an adjunct instructor at Medill and is a member and course coordinator of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the university. He and his wife, Jan, live at the Presbyterian Homes in Northwest Evanston.

Charles Bartling

A resident of Evanston since 1975, Chuck Bartling holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and has extensive experience as a reporter and editor for daily newspapers, radio stations and business-oriented magazines.

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