Charles Overby speaks to press convention

Remarks by Charles L. Overby, CEO, Newseum, Inc.2010 Tri-State Press Convention Tunica, Mississippi
June 25, 2010

The Four C’s: CONFIDENCE, CONTENT, CHARGE, CAMPAIGN

It is a pleasure be back home in Mississippi and to be with newspaper friends from Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi.

I am here today to tell you why I believe in the future of newspapers and why I believe you should too.

I will add one caveat to my optimism:  The future of newspapers depends on your charging for your news and information content, not giving it away on the internet.

Even though I spend most of my time in Washington at the Newseum, I keep up with what goes on in your three states by watching the front pages every day of some of your daily papers.

One of the most popular features at the Newseum is today’s front pages, at least one from every state, that gives visitors from around the world a snapshot of activity in your state.

Today, for instance, we feature three of your newspapers right out on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of our building. Visitors from all over the world pass by and look at the front pages from every state and several countries. Already this morning, visitors are pausing on Pennsylvania Avenue to look at today’s Clarion-Ledger from Jackson, today’s Chattanooga Times Free Press and today’s Northwest Arkansas Times from Fayetteville.

Upstairs in our front page gallery, we are featuring today the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal from Tupelo, the Johnson City Press and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette from Little Rock.

In our kiosk and on our web site today, we have displayed 777 front pages from all 50 states and 73 countries, including 4 from Mississippi, 7 from Tennessee and 7 from Arkansas.

People are fascinated with the news and layouts from front pages across the nation and world. If you ever are looking for evidence that the press is not a single monolith, just look at the front pages every day to see how different the papers are.

Newspapers are an important part of our Newseum. We own 35,000 copies of historic front pages, the most anywhere. We display these pages throughout the Newseum.

Let me tell you about my favorite historic front pages in the Newseum from your states.

From Tennessee, the Knoxville Journal (August 7, 1945): The banner headline said ATOMIC BOMB BLASTS JAPAN. Incredibly, news about Oak Ridge was being reported for the first time. There were four different stories telling readers about the existence of Oak Ridge and what had been going on there with 75,000 new residents. The lead on one story said, “After two years of being a mammoth nonentity, Oak Ridge was officially ‘on the map’ today and could be talked about.” Imagine keeping a secret like that today for more than two years.

From Mississippi, the Jackson Daily News bannered on April 12, 1955 this headline across the top of page one: “POLIO VACCINE WORKS” with the subhead: “Science Conquers Dreaded Disease as Salk Predicts 100 Per Cent Effectiveness.” Another interesting thing about that front page: there were 18 different news stories on the page.

And from Arkansas, we feature a front page from the Arkansas Gazette (May 17, 1956) in our new temporary exhibit on Elvis Presley. The headline said “Auditorium Pandemonium” and the story described “the biggest mob scene the Auditorium has ever witnessed.”

That’s what I like about the Newseum. There’s something there for everybody, from the atomic bomb to Elvis. And newspapers are used to show visitors the historic impact of the event.

Our Newseum is not that different from your newspapers. We have a goal with every visitor to the Newseum: Engage, Educate and Entertain.

The Times of London has called the Newseum one of the 12 coolest museums in the world. The travel writer for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that the Newseum is the best museum she has ever visited.

Why am I telling you this? For two reasons: I want you and all your friends to visit the Newseum when you go to Washington. But more importantly to our business and our society, more than 1.5 million visitors have left the Newseum with a better understanding of newspapers, the First Amendment and the importance of a free press to our democracy.

If you saw the positive way our visitors react to the newspapers in our Newseum, you would wonder why some people are predicting the imminent death of newspapers.

That leads me to the thoughts I want to share with you this morning. There are four main points I want to discuss. With the hope that you will remember them, they all start with C. Here are the four C’s: Confidence, Content, Charge, Campaign.

These four C’s are important to the future of the newspaper business—a future that I feel can be dynamic, profitable and important.

CONFIDENCE

The leaders of community newspapers need to refuse to accept the Chicken Little talk that surrounds newspapers. “The sky is falling, the sky is falling” seems to permeate all discussion about newspapers today.

In my entire life, I have never seen so many people so negative about newspapers.

In 1981, Ted Turner said newspapers would be gone in 10 years. He was viewed as a lone wolf back then. In 2006, Ted Turner again predicted the demise of newspapers. At The National Press Club, he said it was “all over” for newspapers. “When I die,” Turner said, “they are going to die with me.”

I hope Ted Turner lives a long time, but I believe he is as wrong today in his prediction as he was in 1981.

Let’s start with the understanding that your newspapers are completely different from national newspapers like USA TODAY, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

There are inherent problems for national newspapers that relate to news aggregators like Google. The problems relating to national media are not your problems.

Let’s take stock of where you are as a newspaper.

Your newspaper still invests more than anybody else in gathering, editing and reporting the news and information about your community.

Your newspaper has the capacity to provide unifying leadership in your community in a way no other institution can.

Your newspaper arguably cares more about the past, present and future of your community than any other enterprise.

I am reminded of something Tennessee Senator Howard Baker said many years ago. As most of you know, Howard was a very successful politician. He was and is beloved by many people.

He was not known for having a great grassroots organization with precinct captains and such. He was asked what the key was to successful political campaigns.

In his East Tennessee homespun wisdom, he said, “Well, the important thing is to get the talk right.”

Clearly, the talk about newspapers is not right. Whose fault is that?

The decline in circulation and advertising gives skeptics a reason to proclaim doom in the newspaper business. But as in the case of Ted Turner, people have been predicting the end of newspapers for decades, and it hasn’t been true.

In many ways, the worst enemies of newspapers are the people who work for newspapers and/or people who used to work for newspapers.  As Pogo said, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.” Of course, you can’t find Pogo in the newspapers anymore, so there is some irony there.

It seems to me that too many leaders in the newspaper business have lost their way. They have lost confidence in the value of their product. They seem to be feeling their way along a cliff, looking for the right path. Their uncertainty about what to do with their content on the internet—to charge or not to charge—has pushed their business plans to the brink.

But even at the brink, newspapers like yours are better off than many, many businesses.

Most newspapers still have thousands of people buying their product regularly. Most newspapers still make profits.

If you look into web-based alternative news sites, you’ll find that most are not profitable and most have very small staffs.

The talk about the imminent demise of newspapers can come true only if publishers commit business suicide. The weapons of self-destruction relate to content and failure to require readers to pay for content.

Let’s talk about content first.

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