LEWISTON — As more people get their news from the Web and advertisers are slow to get on board, the public will have to ask itself whether paying for news is important.
People will not cover and share it for free out of neighborly goodwill.
Rex Rhoades said he has a lot of questions about the future of newspapers, but that much, he knows.
The Sun Journal executive editor was the last speaker of the season at the Great Falls Forum on Thursday, filling a room at the public library. He shared lessons from a career that began 34 years ago in Pennsylvania and thoughts on the challenges ahead.
“Writing is rewarding. It is also difficult, time-consuming and expensive,” Rhoades said. “Is professionally developed information important to a democracy? I think we’re going to find out in the next three to five years.”
In a talk titled “Newspapers and the New Economics of the News,” he said the Sun Journal had weathered the recession and come out leaner but on better footing than papers that made big purchases and moves to consolidate. It helped being family-owned and local.
“Still, like all newspapers, we realize the ground has really shifted,” Rhoades said. “We need to adapt and survive. Nobody at the Sun Journal, nobody in the industry, is sure how that is going to happen.”
Traditional media — TV, news magazines, newspapers — are losing ground, he said. Competition has come from cable TV, direct-mail advertising and the Internet. It used to be that 30 percent of newspaper revenue came from classified ads, Rhoades said. “Quite a lot of that has migrated to the Web.”
Between the print edition and its website, the Sun Journal is reaching more people than ever, he said, but it doesn’t charge its online readers.
“No newspaper has found a way to fully monetize their Web operations through advertising yet,” he said, leaving print to carry the weight of Web departments.
Audience members asked him who decides the newspaper’s editorial positions (a board that includes him and the owners), whether the paper does outreach in classrooms (about 1,000 papers every day go into Twin Cities schools) and how, with so much to cover, space is divided in the paper.
“We’ll always concentrate on the local news above everything else,” Rhoades said.
Maybe heartening: Rhoades said that the volume of people who call whenever the paper arrives late is a measure of how important it is to them.