Guest Post: The last newspaper generation

May 13, 2009, 9:53 PM UTC

by Esther Wojcicki, journalism teacher and newspaper adviser at Palo Alto High School

Reading the newspaper these days makes me sad about journalism. “The American Press on Suicide Watch” was the headline of Frank Rich’s New York Times column this past Sunday. “Legendary brands from the Los Angeles Times to the Philadelphia Inquirer are teetering,” Rich said, adding that the New York Times Co. might shutter the Boston Globe. Maureen Dowd riffed too about “The Future of Journalism” — which was the title of last week’s Congressional hearing chaired by Senator John Kerry. Journalists, Kerry said, are “an endangered species.”

The crisis isn’t simply that consumers are no longer willing to pay real money to support real journalism. Consumers truly don’t care enough about the product. A Pew Research Center survey in March found that 42% of readers said they wouldn’t miss their city paper.  Most of these readers, as you might guess, were under 40 years old.

I care a lot because I teach journalism at Palo Alto High School, in California. I’ve been teaching high school journalism for 25 years. Starting with 19 students, I’ve built our journalism program into the largest high school journalism program in the country, with six publications, four journalism teachers, and about 400 students. In the advanced journalism class, I teach 70 juniors and seniors. I also teach freshman English.

I decided to poll my journalism students: “How do you prefer to get your news, online or in print format?”

The popular answer may surprise you. About 70% of the students said they prefer “print format” — a hard copy of the paper. They said it’s easier to read this way — especially if a story is long. Long stories online give you headaches and eyestrain, they told me.

When I asked how many get breaking news online, almost everyone raised their hands. They prefer online for breaking news and sports news as well. But they prefer the hard-copy newspaper for features, opinion pieces, and columns, as well as long news stories.

“Who prefers to read magazines online?” When I asked that question, no one raised their hand. Makes sense to me. I can’t imagine reading magazines online.

My students say that they read a greater variety of stories in print. Online they tend to seek specific stories or subscribe to RSS feeds that they know they’re interested in. This is why I urge them strongly to read the hard-copy newspaper. How can you expand your world and your knowledge base if you read only what you’re already interested in?

Yes, it’s ironic, these kids who live in the heart of Silicon Valley recognize the value of traditional print journalism. In February, I took 50 of my students to New York City to visit several publications. The New York Times was one of them. The editors there posed this question: “How many of you read the New York Times in print?” The majority of hands went up. The editors were very surprised.

As one of my students said, “Who wants to have breakfast reading your computer if you can avoid it?”

So here’s the reality: It’s not necessarily that people enjoy getting their news online. It’s just that it’s faster and more efficient — and free.

This is the rub: Readers aren’t willing to pay for news online. They expect it to be free. The standard was set back in the 90’s, and it’s now part of the culture of the Internet. Ads, they said…the ads should pay for it. So far, that strategy has had mixed results. And now we see , with the Kindle, and other e-book innovators asking consumers to pay subscription fees for newspapers delivered wirelessly.

How will this story evolve? I’m not sure whether there is a solution to help pay for real journalism. I told one of my sources close to the industry about the results of my poll. “We are in a transition period,” he said. “Wait until the netbooks become ubiquitous. Then kids won’t mind taking their netbooks everywhere and accessing all their news online. It is just a matter of time.”

I wonder if it really is a matter of time. Not for me. Nothing can replace reading the New York Times on Sunday morning. I’ll pay for that pleasure, even though news about the future of journalism is bad.

Esther Wojcicki is a journalism teacher and newspaper adviser at Palo Alto High School in Palo Alto, California. In 2002, she was named California Teacher of the Year by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.  Starting in 1984, she built one of the largest high school journalism programs in the nation — about 400 students currently. One of her students a decade ago: my Postcards colleague Jessica Shambora. And we featured two of her daughters — Susan, VP of Product Management at Google , and Anne, co-founder of genetic analysis startup 23andMe, in “The New Valley Girls,” a feature about Silicon Valley’s rising-star women in Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women issue last October. Wojcicki’s other daughter, Janet, is Professor of Pediatrics at University of California Medical Center.

“Woj,” as Wojcicki is known to her friends and students, this year was named Board Chair of Creative Commons, a group dedicated to providing free licenses and other legal tools to facilitate sharing, remixing and using of creative works of all kinds.