Albright: Words And Pictures

Jul 6, 2016

If you’re old enough - and I am - to remember the thwack of rolled up newsprint hitting your door each morning, and the pleasure of perusing page one as you sip your coffee, this won’t be good news.

A report just published - online, of course - by the Pew Research Center, shows that in 2015, daily newspaper circulation fell by 7 percent, advertising fell by 8 percent, and staffing declined, in 2014, by 10 percent. Which may explain why I can’t get the Burlington Free Press delivered in Lyndonville. There just aren’t enough subscribers in my neighborhood to justify a route.

In contrast to print media, local television news revenue is holding steady, and cable news saw its viewership jump - especially CNN, whose prime-time audience grew 38 percent, driven, perhaps by a competitive presidential primary season.

All this suggests that modern news consumers are visual learners who like seeing events happen, unmediated by a writer. That saddens me, since I’ve made my career writing stories, first for public broadcasting, and now for a college. Writers still provide the context and research that many of us need to understand the welter of daily events. But images, either video, or stills, are apparently what most news consumers crave now, in whatever media they prefer. Instagram, for example, is wildly popular among millennial social media fans.

Yet newspapers are laying off photographers in droves – and that seems counterintuitive to me. Great pictures capture telling moments. They’ve always sold newspapers, and I think they still do. But when images shrink to postage stamp size on the papers’ online versions, they lose impact. So now that the Rutland Herald and the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus have decided to print the paper only four days a week, I wonder if they’ll lose readers to local television news, where stories are still told in powerful pictures as well as words.

By the way, radio listeners, while the Pew report says podcasting is on the rise, so far it’s not cutting into the traditional radio audience very much - suggesting that audio is powerful all by itself, even without pictures. Illustrated, I think it’s even better. But here’s a lesson from the best newspapers still in business. Sights and sounds on all media websites need to be as plentiful and professional as printed words, to compete with what we’re all doing ourselves on what used to be called our telephones.