I used to have it in my head to be a newspaperman. Even back as far as junior high, I filled my head with the words of hard-drinking, hard-writing journalistic roustabouts like Mike Royko and knew, in that misguided romantic way, that my path pointed toward the staccato of typewriters and the liberation of civic truths.
Well, I could spend the next several paragraphs expounding on my prior (and rocky) relationships with the Fourth Estate, but I was taught in journalism school to keep my copy succinct. Suffice it to say, I spent a lot of time in the business, working nearly every aspect of the trade short of actually running the press, and the truths that were liberated were often of an industry as ethically bereft as all those corrupt politicians I thought I'd someday bring down.
If you want my full credentials, meet me in a bar and be prepared to buy me drinks. (Such is the wont of the newspaperman, to be plied with liquor and asked to tell his stories.)
Anyhow, I am content to be out of that ulcerous life, and at a convenient time as well, given how the industry appears on the verge of fretting itself into oblivion.
Intrepid Media contributor and irrepressible woman-of-letters Margot C. Lester recently pointed me toward a panic piece about the state of newspapering in America. Let me tell you: if this was the state of journalism I'd read about 25 years ago, I'd've stayed plenty far away. This isn't the humming newsroom, populated by irascible wordsmiths and implacable detectives; it's a whiny blogosphere of armchair reporters and their commoditized product.
The article in question is a debate about more potential income models for newspapers desperate to milk their online presence for coin. A media outlet not having a presence on the Internet is unthinkable, of course. The problem comes in generating content for the website without somehow undercutting the print edition -- the thing that's still generating revenue. So far, there's been no clear solution.
Now I'm not against paying for content; the reporters out there gathering the news deserve to have their work paid for. But what this article glances over, in favor of the doomsaying of blogging journalists and disenfranchised editors, is that the larger revenue stream for newspapers comes in the form of advertising, not subscriptions -- whether print or online. And advertising revenues are directly tied to the number of eyes-on that a paper can generate.
The trick would seem to be not to make the (online) content of the paper pay-for-play, but to generate a viable way to get advertisers' copy in front of those online readers, a difficult task thanks to ad-blocking software. And perhaps that old model is indeed obsolete -- in the online medium.
But therein lies the problem, and the article, perhaps unwittingly, supports this critique: Corporate newspaperdom seems to have decided to all but ignore the printed page for its online equivalent, and appears prepared to tie the fate of the former to the latter, despite the heretofore insurmountable obstacle of being able to produce a profitable online presence. It's as if AT&T, back in the 70s, had said, "You know, this whole videophone thing is too unwieldy; we might as well just quit offering phone service now." See also: baby, bathwater. All of the discussion put forward in the article revolves around that ruthless online edition, to the disservice of the very thing that got us here in the first place: the newspaper.
Perhaps it's appropriate that such articles are appearing in magazines like Time, or its online equivalent, Slate. Because they're about as far away from real, old-fashioned ink-stains-on-your-fingers newspapers as you can get. They represent no community; they exist without hometowns.
Meanwhile, in smaller cities and towns across the country, newspapers -- the real kind -- are doing just fine, thank you. Many are even profitable -- despite having their content online, too.
What's the difference? Content. Editorial, not advertising, because with the exception of those glossy Sunday coupon inserts, the value-added of advertising is not going to lead people to purchase -- let alone subscribe -- to a newspaper. These stalwart dailies and weeklies have determined to give their readers the most thorough and engaging coverage of their neighborhoods and communities. They’re dedicated to City Hall -- no matter how small -- and the interactions of the citizens that make up the region they’ve carved out to cover. They’re the passionate coverage of local school sports and the all-inclusive soapbox for opinions reasoned and ranting. They are more representative of their community than any elected official could ever hope to be. They don't have a correspondent in Jerusalem, or Hollywood, or Washington, DC. It's not their bailiwick, and they've understood that for years...and so has their readership.
Once upon a time, big city newspapers had that understanding, too -- back when they were independently owned, and published by men who saw journalism as a civic responsibility rather than a portfolio investment. Now, to appease investors scraping for better profit margins, budget cuts force downsizing of legitimate news departments, while content gets dumbed down in order to attract an audience that would rather read about pop-culture than politics. And in the process, newspapers have abandoned their responsibility to provide and foster a higher level of communication and civil vigilance, driving the kind of people who would read newspapers to seek out that content...online.
It's a romantic notion, I suppose, but much of the attraction of a newspaper is the same as that of a book: the tactile pleasure of holding it, turning the pages, smelling the ink. Compared with RSS feeds streaming to an iPhone, it's downright primitive. But it's an incomparable experience, something no digital screen can replicate.
If major newspapers want to survive, and perhaps one day again to thrive, they'd do well to stop worrying so much about trying to compete in the global online marketplace, and instead return to doing what they did so well for so long: serving their readership with a commitment to community and a determination to provide a reliable and equitable source of information. Such dedication inspires loyal readership and -- better still, loyal advertisers. These newspapers must rediscover the truth in time to save themselves, or the next time someone shouts, “Stop the presses,” they won’t be started up again.
If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.
ABOUT RUSS CARR
more about russ carr
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
2.18.09 @ 8:16a
"...while content gets dumbed down in order to attract an audience that would rather read about pop-culture than politics. And in the process, newspapers have abandoned their responsibility to provide and foster a higher level of communication and civil vigilance, driving the kind of people who would read newspapers to seek out that content...online."
And that's it. Right there.
2.18.09 @ 8:41a
you've nailed it, russ. i'm posting this to FB and Twitter now. you rawk!
2.18.09 @ 5:23p
I used to read two, sometimes three, newspapers a day. I read none now, only partly because my local rag is written for rightwingnuts.
2.18.09 @ 9:52p
It sounds to me like journalism is reverting back to its origins in this country, i.e., back to when a publication was geared toward a certain audience who only wanted to read things that pleased them. The fact that community newspapers are thriving proves this and it doesn't comfort me at all. In the meantime, great article, Russ!
2.18.09 @ 10:13p
To the contrary - community newspapers are thriving because of exactly what Russ said: people still crave information on a civic level, a sense of connectedness. USA Today can't provide the heartbeat of a locality.
In fact, USA Today was the precursor to the type of content newspapers feature now: a snippet of a lot of things, nothing too in-depth, bytes of information you can dole out at parties to make you look informed. It's a great paper to read in an airport.
Local papers have to provide the insider information - the cracks at local government, the editorial cartoonist who encapsulates a city monument, the columnist who makes you cry with a snapshot of a hometown boy made good.
50 years ago, 100 years ago, many communities had a morning paper and an evening paper, sometimes produced by different companies. Metro areas had at least four competing news agencies. There was certainly an alligence to one paper over another, but the choice to seek out additional information was available. That's how it is online now, but there's no reverting back -- that choice in print has dissolved.
2.18.09 @ 11:35p
Moreover, there's a growing trend toward homogenization of the news. It's most evident in broadcast media, where partnerships are being fostered between TV and/or radio stations to pool news divisions as a cost-cutting measure. The stations claim they're creating something akin to a localized AP or Reuters. But the risk is that they're pacifying local news gathering by trading the competitive edge for a more attractive bottom line.
The same situation exists for newspapers. If you could travel across the U.S. one day, stopping in a handful of major cities and picking up their daily newspaper along the way, you'd see how literally similar they are, at least in national coverage. The same AP copy populates nearly every paper nationwide. Wire services aren't a bad thing -- they provide coverage of important stories outside a newspaper's regional purview -- but the extent of prepackaged copy beyond page A1 leaves newspapers about as unique as a McDonald's hamburger.
Finally, there's this brilliant column from a couple of years ago about the web-based news outlet in Pasadena, Calif., that was attempting to outsource its local government coverage to India. The concept may seem patently absurd, but as the author, Robert Niles, points out:
Readers would not be flocking online if offline media had met their needs. People want more informed and more authoritative coverage on a wider variety of topics than old media has delivered. It is that way in Pasadena, as well as for thousands of other communities and topic niches.
Indian contractors might crank out the copy, but engaging newswriting flows from solid reporting. A reporter needs more points of contact with a community than webcast meetings and an e-mail inbox to find the stories that a well-informed readership demands. Yet too many offline news publishers are following a similar model to Macpherson's: Cut back investment in local reporting, outsource news coverage (usually to the AP wire) and disengage from the community by relying on low-paid, overworked reporters who cannot afford to live in the community they are assigned to cover.
I'm not saying anything Mr. Niles hasn't already said. What's astonishing is that nearly two years after his article, the industry would still rather shout that the sky is falling, rather than considering a real solution.
3.3.09 @ 8:13a
As I recently wrote in a poem...
Small, local, heterogeneous is praiseworthy.
Large, corporate, homogeneous is scornful.
We need more local hardware stores and less Home Despots (sic), more local government and less Big Brother, more local papers and less, well, less of what you rail against here. We need to turn the triangle upside down. We need to remember the strength of this nation is in its people, not in its institutions.
I'm starting to sound like that Amway guy that everyone avoids in social situations.