old news

18 10 2008

On Xark! this week, eloquent media blogger Dan wrote what I think is the best article yet as to why the business of metro newspaperin’ is soon to be obsolete.

I remember attending convention after convention in the wake of the brand new brand of journalism: The Weblog. Frantic press junkies asked the same question over and over again: will The Newspaper as we know it die?

At the time, the answer was a resounding no. Popular politics blogs like The Daily Kos and The Huffington Post didn’t give readers everything they wanted, said experts, and besides, what can replace the feeling of holding a newspaper in your hands?

But they were wrong, and the newspaper is today being all-out slaughtered by online media. At first, I was grief-stricken over this reality, as I’m that staunch subscriber who won’t give up her morning-paper-and-a-cup-of-coffee routine without at least a small fight. But it didn’t take long before I, too, saw the potential in the reinvention of news media as a powerful online force which could provide accessibility to more people, and painstakingly updated to-the-minute briefs on What’s Happening Now. NYT.com, Homepage to so many of us, is a perfect example. The New York Times has truly perfected what it means for a newspaper to make the trek from tangible to technical, and for that they deserve all the credit in the world.

But Dan is right: almost everyone else has failed. And when Spokane’s The Spokesman Review announced they would shave off 27 jobs last week, it was only more concrete evidence of the start of a mass extinction that began a few years ago.

The points I particularly liked in Dan’s article are these:

Newspapers’ core audience still doesn’t want change, but they’re aging and they like a product that nobody else wants. The newspaper dilemma: Change the product in hopes of attracting new readers and you piss off your loyal core. Do nothing and you’ll watch your circulation drop every day on the obituary page. All too often, newspaper management responds by promoting bizarre changes that don’t attract new customers and alienate existing ones.

It should be simple: Keep your printed paper in low circulation and let it remain a classic broadside with all the expected sections. Then get someone young and hip to design a Web site that combines the simplicity of Apple or Clinique (lots of black-on-white, sans serif, spaced out founds) with the tech-savvy of Slate or Gawker. But noooo.

No budget for research, development or training means most newspapers can’t see what’s coming, don’t have the necessary tools for survival and couldn’t use those new tools effectively anyway (Hey news executives! Try this newsroom pop quiz: Give each staff member a pencil and tell everyone to stop what they’re doing and write out the tag that creates a hypertext link. If most can’t, you’re not spending enough on training. If anyone in your management team can’t, you’ve got a crisis). It’s also a sign of a dirty little secret: Many papers gave up on staff development several rounds of budget cuts ago.

At the two metro papers I worked at, I was never trained at all. In fact, my Adobe “expertise” and knowledge of this cryptic CSS Code we hear so much about was treated like a godly gift.

Newspapers don’t “own” enough creative technological expertise (programmers, database/mashup designers, XHTML/CSS coders, video editors, Flash animators, graphic communicators, etc) to constitute a viable tech infrastructure. Instead, most newspaper payrolls are bloated with pluralities of resentful Luddites who struggle with the complexities of e-mail.

See above.

Newspapers have already lost one of their key selling points: Social currency. In 2008, all meaningful political discourse — the essential element of social currency — takes place on the Web. Print (and televised) political coverage is now but a pale shadow of the real action online.

During the presidential debates I was wired into six separate political blogs who were each live-blogging the event as it went. By the time the editorials and newspaper articles came out the next day it all felt redundant. So instead of finding new angles (or, I don’t know, live-blogging on their own news sites), everyone decided to research Joe the Plumber.

Newspaper companies hate modern journalism. Yes, that’s an enormously over-broad tarbrush, but this is a message I want to deliver via 2×4: Newspapers companies will not survive the transition to the multimedia future so long as the people within those companies oppose the rules, conventions and culture of that future. You’ll never successfully reinvent your company if you’re punishing the innovators, killing the messengers, rewarding the political infighters and sneering down your noses at the “pajamas-clad rabble” you blame for your troubles.

Thanks for calling it out, Dan. I agree whole-heartedly.

The one thing I disagree with Dan about is that I think that newspapers tend to understand that this Web transition is happening, but they don’t really know what to do about it. New Orleans, for instance, has a deeply relevant (and comparatively successful) local paper. It’s a money-maker because New Orleans has such unique and pertinent local news that most locals can’t get all their information from the national dailies. And yet The Times Picayune, for all it has going for it, doesn’t have its own Web site. They think it’s trendier and hipper to combine their Web news with Nola.com (terribly difficult to navigate and visually unstimulating) because it appeals to the U.S.A. Today FULL COLOR CUT-OUTS! sensibility. It appears to be flashy and all-encompassing, but the site is truly just a sad reflection of how an out-of-touch forty-something with cursory HTML skills perceives the MySpace generation.

And The Times Picayune isn’t the only paper who does it. My home newspaper, The Oregonian (which has been drastically losing revenue for years) links its readers to OregonLive.com. Boooo.

I don’t think adults realize that the Web can be a classy place. It doesn’t have to be garish or awkward and overachieving. It can give us information without blinking avatars or colored hyperlinks. Successful news blogs today are just as careful with their design (if not more so) than the most award-winning works in print journalism have ever been.

The danger in letting the metro newspaper die is that such a massacre will allow the issues of accountability and objectivity to become relatively irrelevant. Fact-checking will become an afterthought at best, and reliable sources will grow more and more questionable. We need good, solid news groups to ensure that journalism remains fair and balanced; if the twenty-somethings with neon blogs earn more readership than, say, the Seattle Times, we will all be at risk of turning into the blind leading the blind off cliffs of untruth.

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18 10 2008

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