Saturday morning, for the first time in 185 years, Pittsburghers will wake up without a printed daily newspaper in the city.
Since the Tribune-Review went all digital in the city two years ago, the Post-Gazette has skipped printing on some holidays. But starting Aug. 25th, the newspaper plans to permanently drop Tuesdays and Saturdays when stories will appear only on the Internet.
“At this moment, for the average person, I doubt they’ll feel a difference,” Leslie Przybylek, senior curator at the Senator John Heinz History Center, told me. “But the moment will come in 20 to 30 years, with the benefit of hindsight.”
That’s the way history works. It’s hard to imagine that Joseph Hall and John Scull were thinking about us in the future when they started a weekly called The Pittsburgh Gazette in 1786. Pittsburgh was just a group of cabins in the woods and Przybylek says the men had to scrounge for paper to print their first editions.
It was just a fleeting moment, and yet contemporary Pittsburghers value that first edition for what it has come to symbolize: a statement that people intended to stay in this area and build a civilization. Having a newspaper as a way to share information and ideas represented the early settlers’ ambitions for their time and for the future.
So what will it mean to future generations that the city’s newspapers are shifting to digital formats?
Already, we know that newspapers mean a great deal to the communities they cover. Studies in recent years have shown that when newspapers close, civic engagement declines, accountability journalism drops and government spending even increases.
But that’s not what’s happening here. The Post-Gazette and Trib are not going away. Both newsrooms are still doing important stories that expose injustice, speak up for innocents and demand accountability. In recent weeks, for example, the Post-Gazette’s Rich Lord exposed the city selling a Beechview house to the city’s real estate manager and the Trib’s Megan Guza wrote about prosecutors criminalizing condoms in prostitution cases.
The newsrooms simply are following the majority of readers who already have moved online.
If anything, the Post-Gazette might need to be bolder. Editor David Shribman said in the newspaper recently that more changes in the direction of digital content are “likely to follow.” That makes sense based on everything we know about printed newspapers, so why wait?
“I just worry they’re going to end up with the worst of both worlds, that they’re not all in enough on the digital,” John Kirkpatrick, a newspaper consultant who used to be an editor and publisher at the Harrisburg Patriot-News, told me.
Kirkpatrick oversaw a staff that won a Pulitzer at The Patriot-News for its coverage of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal at Penn State, and then he shepherded the newspaper and PennLive.com through a merger that ended up with the newspaper being printed just three days a week. Since then, he has moved to Raleigh and has been consulting with the Tribune-Review on moving to digital.
He argues that a digital transformation has to be holistic with the news outlet moving from telling readers what news seems important to engaging with community members on what matters most to them.
Rather than using digital analytics only to chase clicks, newspapers can figure out how to better serve readers. For example, newspapers always have covered high school sports by recounting what happened at games. But Kirkpatrick said the data shows that people would rather know about how the previous game leads up to the team’s next contest.
“You really have to make the move from, ‘We’re writing and thinking about the paper,’ to, really we’re saying, ‘What does the audience want, what do they value most, when do they want it and how do we get it to them?’” Kirkpatrick told me.
For Przybylek and other historians, the switch to digital presents more practical problems.
It’s possible to hold onto early editions of The Pittsburgh Gazette and to actually see the name change when it became the Daily Pittsburgh Gazette on July 31, 1833. The city by then had about 12,500 residents and industry had started to grow, bringing steamboats to the city with supplies and the ability to distribute information more widely. Subscriptions cost $6 per year.
Since then, Pittsburgh has had not only one newspaper but almost always at least two, and once as many as five. While The Pittsburgh Gazette espoused a federalist point of view, for instance, The Tree of Liberty, a newspaper started in 1800, espoused a Jeffersonian perspective.
With everything moving online, archivists now worry about how to preserve digital editions of the city’s newspapers for future generations, Przybylek said.
“It’s a pretty monumental change,” she told me. “It’s a larger question of how they preserve and make accessible the massive amounts of material that’s being generated. … For those of us in the history field, it will mark the beginning of a divide in how we archive and record that history.”