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— Are newspapers dying? Roy Ockert, editor of the Jonesboro Sun, has been working in the newspaper business for nearly 50 years. He started at a newspaper in Hot Springs while he was in high school and has seen quite an evolution in the world of communication. He's heard people suggest newspapers are dying before, and he's hearing it again.

"Newspapers are changing; that's for sure," Ockert said. We have to. But I don't think they'll ever die. I don't know if they'll always be on paper or if they'll all be on a computer screen, but the bottom line is, what we do in covering the news is absolutely invaluable to democracy.

"A lot of newspapers are feeling the hit in this economy, but so are car dealerships, real-estate people and a lot of businesses," Ockert said. "We have resisted change as an industry, and that's hurt. But the papers that continue to evolve and do what they do well - there will always be a place for us. Technology is such a big factor today; we just need to find the right medium that can pay for it."

Ockert and hundreds of other newspaper editors and administrators across the state arrived in Rogers earlier this summer to kick off the annual Arkansas Press Association Convention at the John Q. Hammons Center. Several weighed in on the future of newspapers and the challenges the industry faces.

Most agreed newspapers -particularly community-based daily and weekly newspapers - have bright futures. But like Ockert, they also recognize the need for continued change.

"There are a lot of newspapers out there, but the truth is, I think a lot of them are boring," said David Stoeffler, a longtime newspaper editor and publisher turned analyst who served as one of several guest speakers at the APA Convention on Thursday.

Many newspaper representatives shared design, content and promotion ideas on Thursday. They also shared stories of success and failure regarding the development of Web presence and incorporation of sound, video and other elements to their arsenal. Twitter, Facebook and other social and news-sharing networks are also becoming commonplace, even with newspapers in relatively rural areas, like the Madison County Record, based in Huntsville.

"It's not meant to be a oneway medium," a representative of that paper piped in during an APA discussion Thursday.

Stoeffler believes all newspapers - regardless of size or market - must become more interactive and, above all else, prompt meaningful conversation and opinion.

"What's most important to each and every newspaper is what their readers in their local communities think about them," said Barney White, publisher of the Ashley News-Observer, based in Crosett. "This industry needs to report better like we used to do. People want to be entertained. But we have to remember to report and not simply entertain. Society needs quality information. That's something that's never going to change."

The newspaper industry faces more challenges than story content and design, however. Advertising dollars are being spread between various forms of media. And in the challenging economic climate, longtime advertisers such as real-estate companies, automotive dealerships and others have had to pull back. Meanwhile, many publishers and editors agree, the print editions of many newspapers are still subsidizing their Web sites, rather than the other way around.

"The newspaper business made a mistake in the beginning," Ockert said. "The Internet came onto the scene and changed everything, and we weren't ready. Other news sources started using our material, and they do so without paying a cent. That's become a major issue. Yahoo, Google and other services pull and redistribute our stories and our hard work all over the globe without paying for any of it. That's a battle that's being fought right now and one that has to be settled."

John Bland, a representative of the Times-Dispatch in Walnut Ridge, said he is well aware of the blogs and other instant news vehicles that exist today. But he said newspapers continue to have one distinct advantage, which gives him confidence moving forward.

"You have to take the source into account when you read something on the Internet," Bland said. "Just because someone said something or because you read it on the Internet doesn't mean it's true."

"Online today, there's an inability to sort truth from fiction," Ockert said. "Who will cover city council meetings if we don't? Who's going to get to the meat of the issues? Again, we're invaluable to democracy. That's what a newspaper has going for it."

News, Pages 3 on 09/09/2009

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