OK, it’s not moldy, and the asbestos was removed years ago. But winter, even Washington’s tame one, has that effect on you. Fortunately the fruit-and-vegetable vendor returned to his spot across the street this morning – an even more reliable sign of spring than a robin’s call or Carol’s reminder that the porch needs washing, the pansies need planting, and the sills need dusting.
. . . which are all good reasons to hit the road.
In the meantime, I keep shaking my head about what’s happening to a great American institution: the daily newspaper.
Dinosaurs Yesterday, Newspapers Today
Things have gone from bad to worse – or as cable-TV commentator Keith Olbermann would say, worse to worser – since I last lamented newspapers’ fate.
And worstest may not be far away.
|This newspaper’s new online-only staff, which is one-eighth the size of the former newspaper staff, won’t need this big a building any longer|
And there’s much more news in the world of print journalism – none of it good.
|Things are dire – though maybe not yet this dire – for many newspaper employees across the country as their papers struggle to survive|
I’ve already told you, in an earlier blog, about the travails of Detroit’s struggling dailies. Their story is nearly replicated by the acclaimed national daily The Christian Science Monitor, which will soon go online only, save for weekend and some special-occasion print editions.
And the Washington Post has eliminated its separate, award-winning Business and Book World sections, folding some – just some – of their contents into other parts of the paper. These were, the paper’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander wrote, “wrenching decisions” by a “money-losing newspaper, mired in a bad economy.”
The Washington Post, once thought to be a “license to print money,” now a money-losing newspaper? Why, the U.S. stock market would have to lose half its value before such a thing happened.
|This is pretend strangling. The constriction of American newspapers is for real|
Buy-outs of the contracts of senior reporters and editors, elimination of costly national and international bureaus, and other cost-cutting measures can do only so much when readership and advertising levels are nosediving. Only mortgage bankers and car dealers have had a worse – worser? – month.
Sad times for the reporters and clerks and print shop grunts at newspapers. And for those who love their product. As Gregory E. Favre, a former top Chicago newspaper editor, wrote on the Poynter Institute’s Web site, “There is no easy way to say goodbye to the newspaper you love. . . . And worst of all is when the death comes quickly. When we don’t have time to prepare our thoughts, to really share last conversations and memories, to make sure the past is honored.”
|Reading the paper is a morning tradition that ranks alongside brushing one’s teeth. Note the apt first word in this A.M. newspaper headline: “HELP” !|
But others have elbowed the oldsters aside:
One is a cadre of young people, in the main, who don’t read newspapers – or much of anything in print. They believe there’s just no time, what with all the appetizing choices available on their computers and hand-held texting devices. They see
|Who has time to read the newspaper with so many other communication alternatives available?|
newspapers as cumbersome, dense with useless information, hopelessly behind the latest developments, and unconnected to their lives. It is, after all, their lives that matter, not what’s happening to anyone else. They want to read what they want to read, not what some “gatekeeper” editor puts in front of them.
|With more and more newspapers and online news available for free and thought to be eminently discardable, getting people to pay for the daily paper is an ever-harder sell|
Not Worth the Paper it’s Printed On?
It didn’t take long for advertisers to pick up on this, of course. They’re drastically downshifting their investment in the daily paper or moving their dollars entirely elsewhere. This can spell, and has spelled, doom to many a once-proud paper.
|Take a good look at this young newspaper carrier. He’s part of what looks like a dying breed|
The problem for society, though, is that while wild-eyed opinion pieces fly back and forth in ever-greater numbers on the Web, and broadcast and online media will still chase the big breaking stories, who will have the staff and the finances – or the inclination – to do hard reporting legwork, investigate government and corporate misdeeds, probe the causes of seismic economic shifts? Who will have the institutional memory to dig into old crime stories or put together historical comparisons? Who will fund thoughtful cultural criticism, travel reporting, and in-depth sports coverage? Can a staff of 20 at the new, online P-I – the Post-Intelligencer – do all that?
Carol, who falls into the occasional-reader category, replies that she can find anything she wants online, and so can anyone. Chess puzzles, recipes, long stories about disgraced Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff, right and left opinions of our new president’s performance in office, and on and on.
|I’d pay the modest newspaper subscription price just to read in-depth coverage of my favorite sports. Might even pay for such stories online if I had to|
Why They Call them Newspapers
Here are just five headlines from a single day’s newspaper the other day:
“A Silenced Drug Study Creates an Uproar.”
“Ringling Bros. [Circus] Hits Town as [Animal-Rights] Case Heats Up”
“Trade Barriers Could Threaten Global Economy”
“Selection Committee Doesn’t Want Cinderella at the [National College Basketball Tournament] Ball.”
And . . . “With Punch Lines Instead of Headlines, ‘Ted’s’ a Great – Well, Good – Escape.”
How could I not be interested in that last one? Turns out, “Ted” is part of the name of a new television show.
It’s true that Carol could probably have found similar material among the 800-gazillion Websites online. But how would she have found them? Would she give them more than a glance on her computer screen? How could she easily mark them up, clip them, or set them aside for later viewing?
|Town criers are long gone, except on ceremonial occasions. Their modern-day equivalent of news messengers – the daily paper – is barely hanging on|
“As others have noted, the Internet can’t quickly enough fill the void created by lost newspapers,” she continued. “In time, some markets simply won’t have a town crier – and then who will go to all those town meetings where news is made? What will people not know [emphasis mine]? In such a vacuum, gossip rules the mob.”
|News, news, read all about it... on your favorite video game?|
(I wish I were kidding.)
Then, as she puts it, “forget blogs, tweets, and tags.”
In such a cultural abyss, newspapers would have already been long forgotten.
New Medium, but a Foolish One?
|It is possible to get a coherent idea, as well as chips, on the table at a poker game. This is not my group, I should point out. These guys are better looking|
“[B]ut the culture of the Net was – and is – that everything should be free. The question now is whether that mind-set can be changed.”
The irony, as Time magazine has pointed out, is that newspapers have more readers than ever, counting those who glance at their Web sites. “The problem is that fewer of these consumers are paying. Instead, news organizations are merrily giving away their news.”
The misguided idea was to assign top writers, editors, and photographers to the papers’ Web sites in an effort to join the “Internet revolution,” perhaps make some money from online advertisements, and cross-promote the daily printed product.
The last of these efforts clearly has failed spectacularly.
So at my poker table and elsewhere where journalists gather and tremble, the talk has gone something like this:
|Charge money for newspaper content on the “free” Internet? Many newspapers are scared to try|
Former Time magazine managing editor Walter Isaacson is one media luminary who supports what he calls “micropayments” for online newspaper content. Under his system, newspapers would put their very best work, by their top writers, online. Readers, in turn would pay a modest sum for articles that interest them, much as people buy their favorite sodas out of vending machines.
Presented with the idea of charging for online content, though, those at my poker table – especially after losing a pot or three and in a sour mood – lamented that the genie is out of the bottle and can’t be stuffed back in. They say the only way to begin charging for Internet content would be for every paper – news magazines, too – to do so. If people wanted well-researched, carefully edited original reporting and nonpartisan commentary, they’d have no choice but to pay for it.
A Fatal Flaw in the Argument
Then, my pals would sigh, bitterly: “Of course, not everyone would agree to charge for their Web product. And so no one will.”
This was all especially interesting because the conversation, fixated on the future of news on the Web, seemed to concede that print journalism products were fated to financial strangulation and a slow death.
|Don’t let Carol see this sign|
To my surprise, the radio sports reporters – including Steve Czaban, who also hosts his own national morning sports-talk show, and Thom Loverro, who writes for the daily Washington Times here in town and knows firsthand the trouble that papers are in – got to talking about newspapers’ downward spiral. And Czaban came up with a rescue idea that was almost the exact opposite of conventional wisdom.
‘Help Yourself.’ So They Do
|Steve Czaban, left, and Andy Pollin surprised me, and maybe others, with a provocative discussion about newspapers' future, of all things, on their WTEM sports show in Washington, D.C.|
|Hey, here’s an idea for newspapers: Give away samples, like free slices of steak, in hopes of building readership. Oh, they’re already doing that on the Web|
Sound familiar, news executives?
|Steve Czaban’s idea: Instead of scrounging for ways to get people to pay for newspaper content online, get out of the Internet business entirely|
That would force anyone who wanted the content that only a local daily newspaper can consistently supply to return to the printed product!
Loverro, co-host Andy Pollin, and listeners mostly responded that this was a brilliant idea in theory but would not work for one of two reasons, or both: • Someone else would jump into the void and produce an information-rich local news-and-feature Web product or • in cities like Washington that have more than one daily, the paper that held onto its Web version would “wipe up” and gain the loyalty of thousands of readers who were mad at the paper that pulled its online edition. That, of course, would mean that the competing paper’s strategy of eliminating its Web product had backfired terribly.
Czaban replied to the first point – correctly I think – that there might be meager attempts at producing new local, online information products. But nobody besides a big publisher has the staff or other resources to come up with original stories, reported from the scene, or to pay top columnists and commentators. Web sites, including blogs like Ted Landphair’s America, rely heavily on – read: steal ideas from – the hard work of newspaper reporters. They’re not going to do this hard work themselves. So, Czaban said, newspapers might as well at least get sales from their printed editions before everybody else packages the information electronically, not give it away online themselves.
|Online ads are nothing new to newspaper publishers, but they haven’t proven to match the income potential of the printed variety. Full-page ads would take the reader away from content, for instance|
But Can They Hold a Kindle to Newspapers?
|Well, look what’s on the screen of this new, handheld Kindle electronic reader: a newspaper page!|
Let’s see if I can summarize all that’s been happening and what it means for the future of daily newspapers. I’ll simply repeat a few phrases from this very posting. They won’t be pretty:
|Discarded. Will this soon be the word not just for this one paper but for newspapers in general?|
And if I may be forgiven one more gasp of horror about the last one:
“News may soon be delivered by video game.”
It all makes you wonder what they’re telling college print-journalism majors. If there are any, any more.
TODAY'S WILD WORDS
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)
Circumspectly. Cautiously, watchfully, often a little furtively, not wanting to call attention to oneself.
Cumbersome. Awkward, unwieldy, hard to manipulate physically.
Genie. In popular fable, a genie is a powerful, often turban-wearing figure imprisoned in a bottle. Some lucky soul stumbles upon the bottle, rubs it, frees the delighted genie, and is granted one or more fabulous wishes. The origin of the word is less cheerful, however. In early African and Middle East cultures, genies were sinister spirits that took animal or human form.
Morose. Gloomy, sullen, dejected.
Ponzi scheme. An age-old grifter’s con in which investors are convinced to send the schemer considerable sums of money on the promise of lavish returns. Handsome interest is indeed paid, using some of the money contributed by fresh, eager new investors. But the crook is keeping most of it. Ponzi schemes almost always collapse when not enough new investors can be found, or old ones are tipped off to trouble and try to pull out their money en masse. They quickly find that there’s no money at all.
Town Crier. In a tradition brought from Europe, criers, employed by the community, would walk the streets of early America, often at dusk, carrying lanterns or handbells, calling out public announcements. These would often begin, “Hear ye, hear ye,” or the more formal “oyez,” which is still used to bring many U.S. courtrooms to order.
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