Op-Ed: Superman, Give Newspapers Another Chance

Read Connie Schultz's Parade magazine piece "It's a Bird. It's a Plane. It's a ... Blogger?"

After more than 70 years in the business, Superman quit his day job at Metropolis' newspaper, The Daily Planet. In issue No.13 of the comic, Clark Kent, fed up with criticism from his editor and the paper's owner, quits in front of the entire news room. Columnist Connie Schultz offers advice to the Man of Steel.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

And now, Clark Kent on The Opinion Page. Last month, after more than 70 years as a mild-mannered reporter, Superman quit his day job at The Daily Planet. A fed-up Clark Kent delivered a diatribe in front of the entire newsroom on his way out the door. I was taught to believe you could use words to change the course of rivers, he said, that even the darkest secrets would fall under the harsh light of the sun, but facts have been replaced by opinions. Information has been replaced by entertainment. Reporters have become stenographers. I can't be the only who's sick of what passes for the news today. I'm not the only one who believes in the power of the press, the fact that we need to stand up for the truth, for justice, and, yeah, I'm not ashamed to say, the American way.

The writer of the Superman comics says the Man of Steel may now become a blogger. So we want to hear from journalists in a real world where more and more major metropolitan newspapers will be published just three days a week. Is the battle for print over? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. In yesterday's Parade magazine, syndicated columnist Connie Schultz offered Clark Kent some advice: Don't do it, she said. She joins us now from the studios of member station WCPM in Cleveland. Nice to talk with you again.

CONNIE SCHULTZ: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: As you noted, Superman came to life in Cleveland in the minds of the writer-artist Siegel and Shuster all those years ago, so this hits pretty close to home.

SCHULTZ: Well, of course, it does. And, you know, it's pretty rich. I'm just going to have to point this out about Clark Kent that who, for 70 years, has been working at a newsroom but never felt obliged - once obligated to raise his hand and say, um, you know that superhero you've been covering all these years, yeah, that's me, actually, and that he's going to all of a sudden argue that he's taking the high road here. I take offense, deep offense to this.

CONAN: Journalistic integrity has been in short supply at The Daily Planet for some years.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHULTZ: Apparently so, yes.

CONAN: In the meantime, though, he does speak to real problems that real people have had in real newsrooms.

SCHULTZ: Well, yeah, but, you know, the whole slam against newspapers now, it's just entertainment now, and reporters are stenographers isn't true. And I know this doesn't come as news to you that I say this. I say this a lot.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

SCHULTZ: But there's a lot of serious journalism going on around the country, including right here in Cleveland at The Plain Dealer. And, you know, I had a little fun with him in the Parade piece, but I do feel very strongly about keeping newspapers alive because of the news organizations and the services that are provided by news reporters, but I also think Clark Kent is just full of it.

CONAN: I don't exactly know the lead time of D.C. Comics, but back in July, The Onion ran a news story that headlined economically healthy Daily Planet now most unrealistic part of Superman universe.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHULTZ: You know, oh, God. Yeah. We're going to hear this over and over again, and I did recommend that he not blog because I do think social media is the new kryptonite and certainly for Superman...

(LAUGHTER)

SCHULTZ: ...I said we need heroes, and we don't want you to be like one of us. And before you know it, you know, first, you're going to be trolling Lex Luthor's Facebook page, and the next thing you know, you're going to be tweeting X-ray vision pics of women on the 23rd floor of the Hilton. It happens. You know, you just get lured into it. But in terms of newspapers themselves, it's easy to bash newspapers right now. They are the, you know, everybody likes to gang up on them, I guess. Not everyone, I don't want to overstate that. But I am watching what's happening in my industry and I don't work at The Plain Dealer now so I do not have my job at stake here. I'm very lucky to make a living as a writer, but I'm in newspapers all across the country, both in Parade and in my column. And it is so much more than simply having a daily newspaper on your front stoop every day. It's what that news organization provides and the community it builds by covering it.

CONAN: And what happens to that community when, as in the case of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and in the case perhaps of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, your former colleagues there are deeply worried that it too will soon start publishing three days a week?

SCHULTZ: Well, the thing we've seen is when papers reduce the number of days they are in print, they also reduce the size of their staff. And that goes to the heart and soul of a news organization. And I had something happen just in the last week that really drove home to me the importance of print still. My - I was a columnist for the Plain Dealer for 10 years, about. And my very first column was about my father's lunch pail and how I wish that he could find it - he was - he worked at a utility plant - because I want to keep it next to my computer to remind me of my dad and what he gave up for me so that I would have this college education.

Last week, I got a lunch pail from an IBEW retiree. He's 78 years old. His name is George Harrison, and he lives in Lorain County. And he sent it to me because he was cleaning out his basement, and he still had that very first column that I had written and always remembered that I had wanted my dad's lunch pail. I called him yesterday to thank him, and we talked for about 45 minutes. And we didn't just talk about what he did as an electrician or even what he did growing up in Cleveland. We talked about his grandmother, a union organizer in Cleveland in the 1930s.

And I was getting this whole history lesson from him simply because he had remembered that column, sent the lunch pail. I think as a columnist, you have this opportunity to do that a lot because you're building relationships, you know, good and bad, with readers over the years, and they feel that they know you. But it really drove home to me who reads print still. I write a lot of - about the working class and about poor Americans. And I knew, throughout my career as a columnist, and still in papers in the South where I appear, in Indianapolis. I hear from Jamestown, New York.

I so often hear from the people I cover, and they don't tend to be people who are signing up online or reading online. They're reading the print edition. And I learn from them, whenever they reach out to me. Most of the time, I would say I learned from them, especially if I have the opportunity to call them and have a conversation. You're building community one issue at a time, one edition of that newspaper at a time, and I am very worried about what happens to a major city like Cleveland if we don't have a daily newspaper.

CONAN: And this is not to say this is from someone who's a - shies away from social media. You got one of the busier Facebook pages around.

SCHULTZ: Yeah, I have about 119,000 subscribers. And, you know, I came to that kicking and screaming. I did not want to do Facebook at all. I joined in 2007. Basically, I wanted to prove that you could have online identities with commenters and still have vigorous discussion. And I started out small. And then when we could go to subscribers, I allowed subscribers. And the thing that really - yeah, when I think about what we discuss on Facebook every day, we have a lot of discussions over there, we are mostly discussing links I post to newspaper stories or sometimes it's television news, network news.

But typically, it is going to be a newspaper story. As an example, just yesterday, that horrible factory fire outside of Bangladesh, you know, the garment factory. I posted a link from The Washington Post that had reported 112 were killed. This morning, I posted a story from the Plane Dealer. Laura Johnston is doing a great series on social workers who work for the county here in Cuyahoga County and how most of them are women, most of them are African-American and most of them make on average 9,000 less than their counterparts around the country, and yet they're out there day in and day out, trying to protect the most vulnerable children in our society.

You're not going to get that from an unpaid blogger. You are never going to get that kind of journalism from blogging. There are great blogs out there. I have come around to that way of thinking. I used to just bash blogs all the time. There are good bloggers out there, responsible bloggers. But most bloggers want all the accessibility of journalists without any of the accountability, and that is one of the biggest differences I think you'd find with journalism.

CONAN: Journalists, now that Clark Kent has defected from The Daily Planet, is the battle for print over? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Connie Schultz, the syndicated columnist, is with us. Larry is on the line with us from Lexington, Massachusetts.

LARRY: Hi. I think that the battle isn't over, that more people, as you guest points out, more people read every newspaper every day than ever did in the history of newspapers. The only question is whether they're paying for it. So the battle now is how to pay for journalism, not how to do good journalism. It's always been done well. Superman and Clark Kent both know that, which is why Superman left print journalism in the 1970s to go to work for TV. He left again when Lex Luthor bought The Daily Planet in the 1990s, and he came back each time to print journalism. So stay tuned. DC is likely to bring him back again.

CONAN: Not to put too fine a point on it, he came back from the dead as well.

(LAUGHTER)

LARRY: He can come back from anything. This is - they can take him away one day and bring him back the next. It's all about comic books and fantasies.

CONAN: Well, great Caesar's ghost, Connie Schultz, he's got a point.

SCHULTZ: He really does have a point. And I've been saying this a lot on Facebook on my different posts: subscribe, subscribe, subscribe. Those numbers matter. Circulation numbers determine how many advertisers are going to support it. And he's right, more people than ever are reading it. You know, I wish our industry, I wish the lords of our industry more than a decade ago had listened to some of our younger staff people - when I say younger, younger than I am - who were warning us all along that the Internet was going to be the wave of the future, that we had to figure out how to be able to provide content online and that we should charge for it. And most papers did not. And that was really the beginning of the downfall for us in terms of the economic model right now for newspapers, is we gave it away for free.

But Larry's exactly right. And when you look at all these aggregators, like if you look at Yahoo News, for example, when I sign on to a Yahoo account, I see all these links to newspaper stories. People don't - I think a lot of readers, until recently, didn't realize that even when they were looking at it at a different service, they were actually reading a news story. I will say here in Cleveland, it's been interesting that a local guild, newspaper guild, Local 1, is, right now, waging a campaign to save the daily print edition of the Plain Dealer. This is unprecedented for the guild here in Cleveland. And I can't go anywhere, where if somebody recognizes me, they want to talk about, is the paper going to go to three days a week? They really do care about the newspaper in ways that I had never heard before because they never thought they could lose it before now. And it's quite moving to have some of those conversations.

CONAN: I understand it too. Larry, thanks very much for the call. But a lot of those conversations were held in New Orleans, too, and in places like Syracuse as well.

SCHULTZ: Well, you know, I - and I'm actually - with the - how I came about in Syracuse. But in New Orleans, you might remember, Neal, they didn't even find - most of the staff members didn't find out about it until they read about it on the The New York Times' website. And the Plain Dealer situation is different because the guild has - had time - they are anticipate - the guild is anticipating change. They know change is coming, and they're trying to be part of the conversation, and they're trying to bring in the community as well.

I, you know, I'm not here to demonize owners. I know Don Newhouse and Steve Newhouse, and they've been very good to me and my career. I do believe they care about newspapers. What I hope is that they're hearing the outpouring of support in the community here in Cleveland and they're also realizing just how passionate the reporters and a good number of the editors who don't feel comfortable speaking up because they're not part of the guild. There are some very good editors at that paper.

They care deeply about the work they're doing here. You know, they could be making a lot more money doing other things for a living, but they've continued to work at the Plain Dealer, just as reporters and editors at newspapers around the country, continue to work there because they believe in the mission of traditional journalism.

CONAN: Former Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz, now a nationally syndicated columnist. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Mason(ph), Mason on the line with us from Cleveland.

MASON: Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MASON: I have a comment and a question. I'm kind of ashamed to say that up until recently, I wasn't a subscriber of the Plain Dealer because I got all the content online. But during the super storm, we lost power for a week. And so much of the way that we found out what was happening and what were chances of our power being restored was to go get the paper every morning. And so even though I've been a copy editor for 15 years at daily newspapers, I was, you know, not a subscriber because I had gotten used to getting everything online. So I've reformed.

But my question - my question is I - I - from what I understand, I've worked at other newspapers in other cities that have either gone to three days a week or have just gone online entirely, those papers weren't necessarily losing money like they weren't in the red in terms of how much they were spending versus how much they're bringing in. It was just they were no longer as profitable as a business from what they used to be, and that's why they did all these cost-cutting measures because they were hoping to get back to that level. And I wanted to know if that was - what's the truth about it or if that's true in Cleveland.

SCHULTZ: I can't speak to the finances because it's a privately held company, so we've never known really what the money situation is there. I will say that I've heard very much along the same lines as what you heard, Mason, and - which I think is why it's important that we consider the arguments that are being made right now, to keep it a seven-day-a-week print edition. It is about more than just the numbers. It's about what happens to a community when it loses its daily newspaper and what happens to, you know, you have to tend to the community that you cover, I think.

And I think about - when the Chardon shootings - now, you might remember this in February, Chardon High School, that horrible thing where two - I think it was two students were - three students were killed, two injured in a shootout with a student who, you know, started shooting on the kids in the cafeteria. And that morning, I was on Facebook trying to - kind of garnering the forces, and I was going to write about it for Parade and for Creators. And one of the first things I decided is we were going to cut out all rumors, because people kept winding up post things that they had heard.

And we relied on the Plain Dealer for all that cover, starting with their reporter John Horton, who lives in Chagrin, knows that community well, had all those contacts and was stomping down the rumors faster than anybody else in the country. Because you know how that happens, you get something like that, the national media swarm. Nobody could top the Plain Dealer's coverage for weeks, not just on that day, but for weeks.

And to me, that really illustrates why it matters, because it not only gave people in the area accurate information, but it projected an accurate picture to the country of what was happening here. And that's what regional newspapers do in any part of the country is they know their backyard better than anybody, and they're the ones that we need to be reporting it.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Mason. And for all of those in journalism, we're glad you've reformed your ways.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHULTZ: We make no judgments, Neal. Come aboard. Come aboard.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: There is an aspect, I mean, you've talked about some spectacular stories covered well by regional papers. There are any number of county board meetings. There are discussion groups. There are all kinds of activities in the community that have always been covered by newspaper reporters, often cub reporters. But nevertheless, Jimmy Olsen has to get started somewhere too.

SCHULTZ: That's right.

CONAN: And those kinds of stories will not go covered, it seems to me, by - on the Web - or at least not as interestedly covered.

SCHULTZ: That's right. And when you stop covering communities at that level, you stop telling communities who they - you know, you stop showing them who they are. You stop giving - holding up the mirror and letting them know what's happened in the communities. And as you know, it's all - everything starts locally. Every movement starts locally. Every concern and - and the Plain Dealer in the last couple of years did a tremendous job covering the county corruption scandals that really - it was a Democratic Party and it was Jimmy Dimora who finally went to prison and a bunch of his cronies. And it was startling to watch it unfold.

And nobody could cover it like the Plain Dealer did, and it was a hard story to follow, day in and day out. And some readers said, oh, enough already. But, you know, that is one of the most important things that newspapers do. And I say this as a wife of the United States senator. We have to have newspapers covering elected officials. It's - it is the last stop before corruption. If you don't have newspapers keeping an eye, then they will get away with murder.

CONAN: Thanks as always, Connie Schultz, for your time.

SCHULTZ: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Connie Schultz, joining us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. You can find a link to her piece "It's a Bird. It's a Plane. It's a...Blogger?" from yesterday's Parade magazine on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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