In a month or two, The Martha's Vineyard Times will be 23 years old. The two decades have been kind to this newspaper, really to newspapers everywhere. But, last weekend, at the New England Press Association's annual trade show and convention in Boston, the theme for the celebration might as well have been "What Next, and What Can We Do About It"? No profession poor-mouths itself more assiduously than the news game.
Of course, balancing is part of every newspaper's challenge, especially these days when papers are born and die in a year. When they are bought and closed by chains, or bought and quickly sold for half what the original price was, or merged with competitors so that the new creation is worth less to its readers than the sum of its parts. When only a handful of cities or regions, and almost no small towns, enjoy the fruits of newspaper editorial competition. And when half the addresses on the web purport to deliver news, but don't. Where should the web traveler stop in his search for news he can use, and trust? And what will become of the paper and ink newspaper that, to some cyber-enthusiasts, seems so 20th century?
We were delighted to learn Saturday evening that The Times' web site, www.mvtimes.com, was judged the best among sites posted by large weeklies. Nearly every newspaper, whatever its size or location, has a web site, and most of them are okay. That is, they include a selection of news stories, some photographs, some contact information, and some boilerplate info about the newspaper's community or region. The Times' site is bigger and more fully featured than most. It contains all the editorial material in every weekly edition of the newspaper, plus all the photographs and the classified advertising. It also includes calendars and weather reports, even the up-to-the-minute weather on the roof, and movie schedules and letters to the editor, and columns. Plus, now there are forums in which readers can discuss civic, or even personal, issues, and batter the news coverage or editorial positions of the paper, and one another into the bargain. And, there are sections of the site devoted to the interests of several parts of The Times' audience, including summer residents, year-rounders, and casual visitors. And readers and advertisers can do most of their business with us via the site. There's even an auction. So it's a big site, and complicated, designed to be a broadly useful community resource. Happy as we are at the compliment paid us by our regional newspaper colleagues, we are struck by the irony of the timing. Ever since we put up the new site, we've been adding to it and modifying it, and now we're working on changes, improvements and new features.
We have a tall stack of new stuff that you'll see in the next few months. I know you'll tell us what you think. We pay close attention to the attention you pay us. We check each week to see how many of you visited the forum, how many the classifieds, how many the auction, and on and on. Each week, we give you the news, and in return, we learn a lesson about what interests you.
Balancing carefully the interests of readers and advertisers, changing and resisting change, innovating while holding on to the basics of newspapering: these are the everyday challenges for newspapers in the 21st century and the subjects that conventioneers worried over in the 50 or so seminars, panel discussions, and workshops offered in Boston last weekend.
Sadly, not one of these discussions examined the question: Why is newspapering such fun? Most of the editors were whining about too few reporters and too many readers and newsmakers cross about the coverage. Our experience with you has been different. It's been fun.
"No other entertainment, gave him greater pleasure than reporting ..." Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, editor of a collection of news stories written by H.L. Mencken, wrote about the Baltimore newsman. It applies here as well.
"... nor did anyone appreciate his efforts more than Mencken himself. One reporter, peering through Mencken's window late at night after one rally, recalled watching him at work alone in his hotel room, pounding out copy on a typewriter propped on a desk. He would type a few sentences, read them, slap his thigh, toss his head back, and roar with laughter. Then he would type some more lines, guffaw, and so on until the end of the article."
That's us. Come by the office some Tuesday evening, peer in the front window, you may see enough guffawing to last you a lifetime.
Of course, newspapering is not what it was in the first half of the last century when Mencken was in the business. It's not what it was 23 years ago when The Times was founded. It's not even what it was three or four generations of mvtimes.com ago. It certainly won't be the same when NEPA convenes in Boston next winter. But with luck, whatever it becomes will still bring a chuckle to its practitioners, and maybe to you.