newspaper, news again

5 07 2007

Today Slate.com ran an editorial on the plummeting profits of the print journalism industry, and optimistically touted the idea that “If we’re lucky, it will look something like the newspaper of the past.”

That would take a lot of luck.

The article examined case studies of copies of the Washington Post and the New York Times since the 1970s. Last spring, in Walla Walla, Washington, I spent countless hours examining the Walla Walla Union Bulletin from 1915. Oh, how things have changed.

In 1915, when Walla Walla was a big town in a developing world and journalism was just beginning to be a thriving industry, the paper brilliantly delivered only the most important facts — alongside local gossip about Mrs. Smith and her social brunches. Articles were succinct and to-the-point, getting the message across in 400 words or less.

Actually, I’m all for that kind of newspaper journalism. I think its ready for a comeback.

There’s a lot of room in the modern world for larger-scale reporting. Thousands of alternative weeklies and glossy monthly publications provide the space and the means for 14,000 stories about the decline of healthcare since the birth of the nation or the underlying implications of the iPhone in modern culture. A daily newspaper should be there to report the breaking news. It’s something you should be able to read on the bus on the way to work — not something that you should have to devote two hours to. Every story the New York Times runs on its front page could easily be shortened by at least half.

A downloadable Times Reader has been recently implemented, but you have to be at a computer to read it, which makes the grab-a-paper-and-go mentality of yore obsolete. It also comes with an additional $14.95-per-month subscription fee. No thank you.

The Times will be raising its price from $1 to $1.25 later this month, which pretty much obliterates any rational argument for getting hard copies of the newspaper. There has been talk for over a decade that print media will be largely obsolete within the next few years.

I think that’s ludicrous. People like to hold things. We still like books these days, last time I checked. Your eyes get tired after staring at the screen for too long. And I’m just as much for environmentalism as anybody else, but the Internet does not good journalism make. The smell of newsprint and fresh ink… no, I refuse to believe people are ready to give that up.

The problem is that newspapers are turning more and more to the USA Today model — flashy photographs, fluffy news, lots of color, an overwhelming amount of meaningless drivel… you get the idea. This winter break, I opened my local newspaper, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Oregonian, and the front page (which had been cropped with the rest of the paper by an inch vertically and horizontally since the previous summer), and was immediately struck by the pretty cut-out graphics, colorful header and “front-page”-worthy news stories: too many pigeons, local girl with brain cancer graduates from high school, parade to go down tomorrow.

My heart sank. I used to turn to the Oregonian for my news. Now it’s a rag that faintly resembles the low-budget pieces of fluff you get for free at the grocery story on the Oregon coast.

As the Slate editorial correctly assesses:

 Obviously, my preference would be for soft sections to erode faster than hard ones as newspapers retool and that the future newspaper ends up looking like its cousin from the recent past. I’m rotten at predictions, so I really shouldn’t venture a guess as to which way publishers and editors will steer, but if you pushed me for a forecast, I’d guess that most will make a mess of their papers by drawing down manpower proportionately, guaranteeing that the hard-news pages are as mediocre as the soft ones.

I think newspapers could really succeed if they’d just return to their original, hard-news-oriented predecessors. Give the American people a little credit: We’re not all deftly concerned with Paris Hilton’s every move.

But there’s hope for print media yet: with more and more news turning to the vaster and cheaper Internet, it won’t be long before telling the difference between good journalism and total crap will be short of impossible. People will yearn for the simpler times — and the simpler Times. Call me an idealist, but it’s hard to wipe out things that have been proven to work. The old-fashioned newspaper is one of those phenomena.

I hope.

Just to be safe, though, someone should probably do something about Rupert Murdoch

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