The Biscayne Times

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Jan 24th
A Writer’s Fond Farewell PDF Print E-mail
Written by John Ise, BT Contributor   
January 2020

Be mindful that journalism is at risk

WPix_John_Ise_1-20hen I was a wee young lad, I developed a lifelong love affair with newspapers. From the age of 12, I’d religiously read the Washington Post’s sports page, backing into the comics section, taking perverse delight in the Doonesbury knockoff Bloom County and a somewhat subversive and surreal comic strip titled Zippy the Pinhead.

In time, I devoured the newspaper from front to back. Even at college frat parties, I might have a rolled-up Dayton Daily News in my back pocket while in line for the beer keg. I even was reprimanded in a job as a school janitor because I’d be lounging, reading the paper, instead of plunging toilets.

A news junky through and through.

But, alas, newspapers have fallen upon hard times. The Columbia Journalism Review has created an online map that tracks localities throughout the United States that have become “news deserts,” i.e., vast swaths of areas with no daily local newspaper presence. A new study by PEN America notes that over the past 15 years, local newspapers have lost more than $35 billion in advertising revenue and over 2000 newspapers have closed. Add to it that those which are surviving are ghosts of their former selves. The Dayton Daily News may soon become a four-day-a-week publication, joining other hard-hit newspaper communities like Pittsburg and New Orleans that lack daily publications.

With the advent of the Internet and the decision that many newspapers made years ago, in the face of competition from aggregated news sites and social media, to give away their entire contents online, free of charge, it’s not difficult to decipher the original sin. As paid circulation declined across the board, management cut back on journalistic talent. Newspapers shrank and became less relevant, even as owners raised prices. Fewer readers bothered to subscribe, creating more cutbacks, and now the death spiral accelerates.

And why is this so important? “A healthy local news ecosystem provides communities with the information they need to live safe, healthy lives and participate in the democratic life of their communities,” notes PEN. “Robust local news drives voter turnout, holds officials and corporate leaders accountable, makes people aware of nearby opportunities and dangers, and, perhaps most important, works against the now-widespread breakdown in social cohesion by narrating the life of a place and its inhabitants, telling the daily stories that form the basis for shared communal experience.”

PEN concludes, “These costs and benefits are not abstract -- they are rooted in the very foundation of America democracy.”

Locally, McClatchy News, the parent company of the Miami Herald, teeters on bankruptcy and has announced that the Herald will become a six-day publication come March, eliminating the Saturday print edition. An early-morning bike ride through Miami Shores and Biscayne Park reveals precious few newspapers on the front lawns of these middle-class, educated communities.

Putting aside the excellent work of Julie Brown’s exposé on Jeffrey Epstein or Carol Marbin Miller’s revelatory work on child welfare, the decline in Miami Herald readership can be seen in the declining caliber of the paper. The Herald’s October 25, 2019, “Local & State” section of the paper had the same article under two different headlines on the same page, one headline misspelling Gov. Ron DeSantis name as “DenSenatis.” And then there’s the fact that there is precious little coverage of local news at the Miami Shores/Biscayne Park/El Portal level.

For newspapers wide and far, a new business model is urgently needed.

While sad, it may be time to forget the print edition. My Miami Herald digital subscription is $9 a month, whereas the print edition is close to $90 per month. And with digital comes video as an aspect in telling a story. News outlets must figure out how to put compelling stories together both in word and video, embedded in the digital paper. They must become online only. Without the space restriction of print newspapers, digital papers can become more in-depth. Freeing the paper of the multimillion-dollar expenses of the printing press and distribution networks, McClatchy could plow those savings into great journalists to produce great journalism.

Plus, they could harness the talents and passions of local citizen journalists/bloggers like Biscayne Park’s Fred Jonas and Milton Hunter or Miami Shores’ Al Crespo. Bring them inside the tent, with appropriate editorial oversight, to keep tabs on local happenings. The same goes for high school or Barry University sports. The Herald can’t cover them all, but there are reliable sources to feed the machine. Make it easy.

Also there may be some traction in moving to a nonprofit model for newspapers. Where is the PBS or NPR of newspapers?

There is, of course, a notable local exception to the print-is-dead rule, and chances are, you’re holding it in your hands right now. The truth is that Biscayne Times has pulled off an impressive hat trick in becoming a successful and relevant print (primarily) publication.

During a recent Green Day festival in downtown Miami Shores, it was heartening to hear a steady stream of compliments from local festivalgoers stating how important the BT is to them. It wasn’t so much how they enjoyed it, but how they valued it that left me gobsmacked.

And the recipe for success really isn’t that complicated. Create a high-quality, zippy, colorful, and well-written publication whose focus is hyper-local and then distribute that product free of charge on the front lawns of northeastern Miami-Dade’s most educated, affluent neighborhoods.

Guaranteed eyeballs of these sophisticates with disposable income is a natural lure for advertisers who stuff the Biscayne Times pages and make what otherwise would be an iffy business proposition into a media success.

Of course, it’s the writing that makes the day. Erik Bojnansky, Mark Sell, Jay Beskin, Janet Goodman, Jeff Shimonski, John Dorschner, and Nancy Lee are BT contributors I secretly stand in awe of over their superior reporting, writing, and research abilities. The caliber of the articles they regularly churn out is where the true value of the newspaper lies.

Then there are those behind the scenes, such as Dinah McNichols, who edits my monthly columns, shaping them from meandering blather into something halfway readable. And finally, there’s the Billy Martin of Biscayne Times, editor and publisher Jim Mullin. He is the “straw that stirs the drink” and keeps the BT machine running and performing.

And for me, that’s a wrap. I’ll be stepping back from Biscayne Times duties to focus on work and family. It’s been a gas to produce a monthly column for the good people of the greater Miami Shores, but more important, to be part of this vital publication. It merits your ongoing support.

 

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