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by Jennifer Ching, staff writer

 

With the economy in crisis and advertising revenues declining, the future of newspapers is under a dark cloud. In the midst of the uncertainty, Melanie Sill, award-wing editor of the Sacramento Bee and former Hawaii resident, shared her belief that “this too shall pass.”
“Nothing lasts forever,” Sill told members of the Society of Professional Journalists and HPU students, who gathered at the Plaza Club in downtown Honolulu Jan. 23 to hear her talk about “The Future of the Newspaper Industry.” Born in Nebraska and raised in Waipahu, Sill has more than 25 years experience in journalism. Formerly executive editor for the News & Observer in Raleigh, NC, she has worked at the Bee since 2007. She won a Pulitzer in 1996, with News & Observer staff writers Pat Stith and Joby Warrick for their five-part series uncovering environmental and health risks related to North Carolina’s hog industry.
Sill described the current situation as being like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. “It’s a very divided time… to be a journalist now,” she said. “In a way it’s a really wonderful time for journalism. The Internet has opened a lot of possibilities and really expanded the reach of what we can do with journalism. But on the other side of things, it’s really a dark time. Almost everywhere, the reports are that advertising revenues are really slumping even more than we had expected.”
One thing that is frustrating to Sill is the a common misconception about the actual reach of printed news. “There’s a sort-of steady chorus,” she said: “‘Newspapers are dead, newspapers are dead. Nobody wants to read them anymore.’ [It] overlooks the fact that 100 million people in this country every week read newspapers, printed newspapers.
“ So I think, going forward, there’s a danger that the newspaper audience and the print audience will be abandoned, because of a kind-of self-fulfilling prophecy that newspapers are dead,” she added.
Sill then offered survival strategies for these challenging times: “At the Bee, like every company, we’ve had significant staff cuts, but we’ve really focused a lot on quality. So as our physical paper has gotten smaller, we’ve worked on making the coverage better. We’ve been trying to, also, be very cognizant of the fact that we need to know…what kind of information our community needs. We need to be as good at listening as we are at telling,” she said.
“My core belief,” she continued, “is that newspapers only exist because our society wants to know what’s going on, and our future really rests on the future of our communities, and so those of us in communities that are really struggling with unemployment and businesses struggling…we are really all in it together.”
“It’s all about choices –what’s most important. You can’t do everything that you did with a much bigger staff, so you have to figure out what’s most important to readers,” she added.
Sill also spoke to students’ concerns about whether jobs in journalism will be available after they graduate.
“ They [students] want to know, is there going to be a news organization for me to work for,” she explained, “and I say, ‘Yes, and it may be different – it may look different from the ones in the past, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t be good.’”
Her advice to students is to “look for the best job you can get—even if it’s not your dream job—where you’ll be learning…. If [students] really care about, enjoy, writing and journalism, and want to do it, at their age it’s too early to give up.”
For HPU senior journalism majors Jessica Goolsby and Nikita Mendonca, Sill’s talk was encouraging.
“ She was very helpful, said Goolsby. “I appreciated everything she had to say, especially when she said take whatever job is available. It might not be your dream job right off the bat, but just to go in and get your foot in the door. Somebody will notice you, and eventually you’ll get to be where you want to be.”
“ It’s really comforting,” said Mendonca, “to hear from Melanie that there is still hope in the journalism profession for students, because that’s a huge fear for students right now. It was what I needed at this time.”
In closing, Sill added: “If there is a silver lining, I think what’s going on is really forcing us all to think about what journalism is for. Perhaps in a time when news companies were making 30, 40, 50 percent—some television companies’ profits—there wasn’t really that focus on why are we here and what’s our mission, so that’s what we’re all thinking about now.
“ Even if we only have a smaller staff, we can still do good journalism,” Sills said. “It’s all about making those choices and figuring out what’s most important, and valuing the people who work with us, and valuing our community.”

 

 

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