Everyone has weighed in on all the reasons newspapers are dying, but nobody has quite hit on the root cause. Intrepid reporter that I am, I decided to go to the source to find out why newspapers are dying. The answer, I’m almost ashamed to report, is newspapers.
Understand, this is a lover’s quarrel. I love newspapers and have worked at six of them in more than 40 years, in New York City and in the San Francisco Bay Area, as a columnist, critic and feature writer. It gave me a livelihood and a life, a kind of identity, which I wouldn’t have traded for any other career. I scour two papers a day, plus two by mail, and would never think of reading the news under glass. But it didn’t occur to me until recently that a partial answer to what ails newspapers was right under my nose: Pointless stories, blandly written stories, silly stories, and ads masquerading as stories.
In combing through a recent edition of one newspaper, my threatened hometown San Francisco Chronicle, I found a story about how hot it was the day before–a newspaper staple for 100 years, the same story retold countless times every year in every newspaper in America, a story that is not a story and that nobody need ever read again. There are scores of such non-stories that appear every day, repeated like involuntary reflex jerks.
There was a story about the 10th anniversary of the Columbine shooting–more squandered space and misspent reportorial manpower. Anniversaries of tragic events are rehashed periodically in newspapers–yet another creaky journalistic cliché and space-eater. There were, as ever, several stories about someone being shot or mugged or murdered, once a newsworthy incident in the world, but, alas, no more.
Certain crime stories are so incredible and compelling they deserve to be reported, but most are largely unread, pumped up by editors to rationalize their place in print. Newspapers continue to go through scores of such reporting motions out of lazy habit. The industry talks about needing to find a new business model. Yes, but equally (maybe more) importantly, it needs to find a new news model.
All fire stories except major blazes can be eliminated with nobody any less informed about what truly matters in the world. Most city hall and statehouse edicts have little, if any, import or impact. If they occurred, newspapers’ automatic response is to run them. Pavlovian editors respond, barking whenever a politician rings the bell. Reporters sit up and beg to be fed undernourished news bites. Most statements by politicians are grist for presses printing much of the same chaff they ground out in 1960–too often self-serving, image-enhancing posturing. Less auto-pilot reporting might force politicians to say something worth 12 inches of valuable newsprint real estate.
Tons of costly ink is spilled every day on news stories about something that might happen or didn’t happen, or are updates that don’t advance a story and are simply run to show that the paper is on top of a story, no matter how banal. Yet newspapers rarely follow up on stories they excitedly blared six months ago but since forgot about.
Crowding out more enterprising pieces, threadbare pop staples abound on the entertainment pages, an area I patrolled for 40 years–reviews of third-rate movies, stage shows and pop concerts, even opera and classical concerts that appeal to 2 per cent of the public. Society columns finally vanished when newspapers got the message, about 40 years late, that nobody except the publisher’s wife cared who went to what party in which gown. Today’s pseudo-hip versions, the so-called “style” sections, scrounge around for bizarre trends worn out in a week, if indeed they existed at all.
Fashion sections themselves are dowdy holdovers from another era, thinly veiled ads for designers and clothing stores. Even more blatantly, new-fangled “technology” sections are just ad supplements announcing that day’s high-tech gizmo from a company that should be buying ads to help keep the newspaper in business. The entire high-tech industry got a pass from newspapers providing free publicity for rivals that now threaten to bury them.
Likewise, gardening and “design” sections are filled with gadgets that ought to be buying space. “Take out an ad!” was a time-honored newsroom sneer for companies trying to persuade you their product or service was newsworthy, not just free publicity. The entertainment pages, likewise, are cluttered with printed infotainment–pieces for upcoming movies tarted up as advance stories and interviews with stars and directors touting a new movie. Newspapers are so used to covering show business like they did in 1959 that they don’t know how to do it any other way–with a giant salt shaker handy.
In brief, newspapers remain mired in antiquated ways of trumpeting what’s new, no matter how inane or how harmful to their own self-interest. Columnist Debra Saunders recently wrote, “Newspapers have written fawning stories about Google and Twitter and free classified ad sites as if they are all good.” By running a gazillion gaga stories about the glories of the Internet, editors have conveniently led readers right to their competitors’ door. Want to tell readers about the latest info-tech wonder? Take out an ad! Back in the day, there was a saying, “Does Macy’s tell Gimbel’s?” In the early days of radio, if a show was called “The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour” or “The Chase & Sanborn Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show,” newspapers charged programs to be listed in the daily log. Maybe they had the right idea.
Then there are all the standard syndicated features newspapers mainly run out of tired habit–advice columns, unfunny and badly drawn comic strips, policy papers on op-ed pages from people with political or financial axes to grind.
Meanwhile, humor columnists–a crucial newspaper staple for years–have mysteriously vanished. After Art Buchwald and Erma Bombeck died, and Russell Baker and Dave Barry retired, nobody was found to replace them, even though social and political satire was once a lively, valuable function of newspapers that gave them spirit and personality. “The Onion,” “The Daily Show” and “Politically Incorrect,” leaped in to fill the humor column void.
Newspapers may be more “responsible” now but they’re also far more colorless, less readable. It’s the Woodward and Bernstein syndrome run amok. Newspapers got all serioused-up and bloated with self-importance in the 1970s. They became more purposeful, which was great, but they also lost much of their old vitality, not so great - and probably lethal to their survival.
Newspapers seem unable to rid themselves of encrusted habits that have helped render them irrelevant or just annoying: hammering a subject to death with saturation coverage, hyping fears and threats that likely will never happen (see “Flu, Swine” and “Bees, Killer”), trading on tragedy, covering what everyone else is covering, treating official proclamations at face value, reviving stale “human interest” stories no longer interesting to most humans–not young ones anyway.
Apart from strangling on ancient preconceptions of what’s news and what’s interesting, newspapers have lost their nerve, their way, and maybe now their future. At a major newspaper’s editorial meeting a few years ago, the executive editor threw up his hands and said, “I don’t know what to do!” Newspapers always knew what to do, or pretended they did. They were leaders of public opinion, not hapless, lifeless followers.
Newspapers are now busily, desperately, pandering to readers to please read them, even asking for their ideas on what they want to read. Tell us how to run our paper.
The quickly discredited “civic journalism” fad of a few years back was happily hooted into oblivion, but much of that same editorial neediness still oozes out of newspapers. Each week, The Chronicle devotes half a page to a “People Meter,” in which folks are stopped at a supermarket, a park, a movie theater, wherever, and asked why they’re there–interactive journalism by Facebook and YouTube.
The Internet has far less news than newspapers but much more energy and enterprise — and wit–than enervated papers running on almost empty. Most of what you read in newspapers may be new but it isn’t necessary news - i.e., worth knowing. The famous “New Journalism” of the 1960s and `70s gradually was siphoned off by the Net, as spirited new journalists became magazine writers and then famous authors.
Meanwhile, newspapers retreated back into the Old Journalism, where it largely reclines today. Most of the flair and vivid color of the New Journalism has turned to gray. People had to read papers in that era, now they don’t have to or much want to. It’s not all the fault of dwindling reading habits or the Net. Partly it’s because so many newspapers are edited by outdated presumptions, and partly it’s due to drab, hackneyed writing.
Newspapers still cling to their charter philosophy that if it didn’t happen yesterday it didn’t happen. If a story is three days old, it’s history to editors even if it may be far more interesting than anything that did happen yesterday. If a good story is judged too long it usually fails to make the cut as is, because editors are fearful readers won’t read it. To make up for this presumption, editors run unreadable six-part series on something they deem of urgent civic concern–to pay their dues and to submit for prizes. Few people beyond contest judges are likely to read all, if any, of the noble series; it’s just too daunting.
Ever since TV and news-wheel radio, people really haven’t needed newspapers for basic breaking news, but it took the Internet for editors to finally get the point. News is cheap –in fact free, on the Web. Newspapers have been reduced to retail news merchants– “content providers,” feeders for a medium totally dependent on newspapers. For newspapers it’s a cruel vicious cycle–they’re being put out of business by the people whose content they’re providing, a form of self-immolation.
People don’t read newspapers for major news, but there’s so little else of interest to replace it, because most papers are stuck in doddering ways of delivering what they consider newsworthy. Maybe it’s newsworthy to hidebound, unimaginative editors, but not anymore to most young readers, many of whom have, alas, moved on.
Newspapers need to become daily magazines–and in a hurry. In my vision of the future, the papers that survive will be tightly edited, brightly written specialty journals– newspapers for political reportage, newspapers for pop culture, newspapers for the arts, newspapers for sports, for business, for books. The Wall Street Journal, Daily Variety, The Sporting News and The Daily Racing Form are all thriving despite the upheaval surrounding general interest newspapers because they supply readers with savvy inside showbiz, financial and sports news that newspapers aren’t able to provide for a mass readership.
Yet even with all their failings, as ailing, ancient and inadequate as they are, newspapers are so far superior to the Net, TV and radio that it’s no contest–not yet anyway. But newspapers–whose basic purpose is communication–have been virtually mute, tongue-tied, at telling their own story to the public, explaining how crucial they are–not just for the public’s casual perusal over morning coffee but to the entire informed electorate. Since the flamboyant 1920s and `30s, newspapers have been hapless self-promoters. They much prefer to toot the Internet’s horn.
The public appears oblivious to how often newspapers have saved peoples’ lives, maybe even rescued the country, by investigative reporting that no electronic medium has even minimal taste or talent for. Even network TV, with all of its wealth, rarely digs out a big story on its own, without a prod from a newspaper. TV news divisions are at the mercy of ratings and of television’s basic business pressures to be splashy, shallow and mawkish.
A quick survey of the recent 2009 Pulitzer Prizes reveals just a fraction of the kinds of things that newspapers do routinely–papers great and small reporting on scandals, venal politicians and business executives, corrupt folks everywhere. The Las Vegas Sun won for its stories on inadequate regulation in building trades that led to deaths on construction sites; a Miami Herald photographer won for pictures revealing the natural horrors that had struck Haiti and caused some 800 deaths; The New York Times won for a disclosure of how the Bush administration loaded the deck by planting retired but Bush-friendly military officials with TV newscasts as objective experts on the war; the threatened-with-extinction Detroit Free Press won for reports on cover-ups by the city’s mayor that ended up with the mayor and his chief of staff behind bars; The Glen Falls (New York) Post-Star won for editorials demanding more accountability by school boards for public contracts; the reduced and embattled Los Angeles Times won for stories on the deepening environmental crisis caused by wildfires; The St. Petersburg Times won for a feature story on neglected, abused children. Those are just the winners –each category had several deserving runners-up–and the Pulitzer Prize winners are just the crème de la crème from among hundreds or thousands of worthy entries from all over.
Yet newspapers have always played the objective, humble deliverer of news, forgetting to let readers know how much they rely on that morning thud on their front porch, a sound taken way too much for granted. Recently, when my Chronicle failed to arrive, and as I waited for it to be delivered, I suddenly realized: get used to it — this is how it will be every day if our major local newspaper goes under. Sure, there’ll still be The New York Times–though even its future isn’t guaranteed–but one day soon we may have to sip our morning coffee while watching news bites on “Today” or “Good Morning America,” chirpy slapdash versions of the world, or forced to endure shabby, chintzy, copycat local news stations and their unchanging credo: if it bleeds it leads.
That copycat virus has infected TV and radio news so acutely that you can tune in the major TV newscasts, national or local, and find them running the same stories pretty much at the same time and breaking for a commercial at the same moment, as if by fiat –or maybe collusion (so we can’t escape commercials, no matter what newscast we’re watching). If newspapers fold, radio and TV news may be forced to improve, but don’t count on it. They too are trapped on a wobbly news treadmill. If you think newspapers now are unimaginative covering the news, wait till you get a steady diet of warehouse fires, gang shootings, protest marchers, weathercasts and new-baby-elephant-at-the-zoo stories.
Most agonizing of all is how little the public seems to care about this convulsive news revolution. The San Francisco Chronicle runs love letters to the paper from longtime readers who fear its demise, but from the general pubic, on the verge of becoming newspaper orphans, we hear nary a peep.
People and politicians ought to be screaming on the barricades. It’s almost as if the Justice Department finally disbanded due to a lack of interest. The daily paper is more than just a pleasant morning pastime–it’s the only profession mentioned in the Constitution, protected from government meddling.
Newspapers need to launch a national campaign to remind people how vital they are — while there are still papers left to run the story. In the futurist nightmare “Fahrenheit 451,” firemen are enlisted to burn all books and periodicals. In our real future, we won’t need to call fire fighters to banish newspapers. The newspapers seem to be doing it for us.
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