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.

media war on war

17 03 2008

The danger of a presidential election as monumental and central as the 2008 presidential election is that the American public loses sight of everything else going on in the world. The Iraq War, for example, was on everybody’s radar just a year ago — the annual anti-war rally I went to in Portland, Ore. last year was attended by 15,000 people. Although no numbers have come in yet for this year’s rally, I can tell you the numbers didn’t come close to last year’s. And this is the fifth year we’ve been at it.  

a peace rally two years ago

Of course, maybe it’s the five years that’s been the problem. Maybe we’re tired of protesting and we feel like picking a new political leader is the smartest thing we can do to actually make change happen internationally. I get that. For me, a peace rally is a symbolic motion. It’s really something you do more for yourself than to instigate active change. It reminds you, definitely, that you are not alone. It gives you a sense of the massive strength of a movement.But while the presidential primaries have eaten the national daily newspapers alive, even the subject we all swore was so important to us (the Iraq War) seems to have become clutter for the shelf.A Pew Poll released last week reported that public awareness for the Iraq War has not only dissipated in the past few months, it has practically dissolved:

Public awareness of the number of American military fatalities in Iraq has declined sharply since last August. Today, just 28% of adults are able to say that approximately 4,000 Americans have died in the Iraq war. As of March 10, the Department of Defense had confirmed the deaths of 3,974 U.S. military personnel in Iraq.       

That 28 percent is compared to 54 percent last August, and about half in 2004. This percentage is by far the lowest reported awareness since these polls were started in April 2004. To blame, of course, is the media, which feeds on the frenzy surrounding the current presidential election (84 percent of people in the same survey were able to name the talk show host who endorses Barack Obama). While conditions worsen and swell in Iraq, national newspapers appear to care less and less, reporting virtually nothing about the war in December, and even less in January.

If we claim to care about foreign affairs and say we want to fix the mistakes President Bush has made, we’d better know enough about those mistakes to tell our representatives what we want to change.


1 02 2008

I’m burned out. Are a lot of people burned out? Does this happen every election year, or are we all just uniquely DONE with G.W. to the extent that don’t know what to do rather than turn the ’08 election into a veritable Us Weekly special edition? As the kind of person who eats up domestic politics like Perez Hilton eats up… well anything and everything in his sight, I’ve been profoundly disappointed with the extent to which election coverage has swallowed the news over the last five months. I guess that’s the primaries for you, but aren’t they a little early this year? They are? Huh. I thought so. I’m bored of it.

Particularly annoying:

Slate’s entire subhead on Election ’08, moved up to the top of the menu, as if it is the most important thing in the world.

Wonkette’s shift from being smart and politically witty on dozens of unique front to being just another ’08 election blog.

The New York Times dropping all under-the-rug stories about instiutionalized problems in America in favor of “Hillary cried” fluff.

So I’m just going to say this the once: Upsidedownagain.com officially endorses Barack Obama as the 2008 presidential nominee, based mostly on his good track record and Kennedy-like appeal. Take it and run.

heeding headlines

16 08 2007

I opened the newspaper today and here were the leading headlines:

And I thought to myself: This is depressing. I’m depressed today. I just want to leave work, get on the subway and go back home to watch reruns of The Wonder Years.

Then it hit me.

Upside Down Again, as of today, finally finds the direction its always been looking for: This blog will here on in be a beacon of hope in the great sea of despair that is the U.S. News and Tabloid Jungle. I’ll scour the newspapers for buried headlines that will turn your frown (wait for it…) upside down. Why not? Good things happen in this world every day; and after all, a spoon full of sugar certainly does help the medicine go down.

americans suck

21 07 2007

Check out my list of My 10 Least Favorite (Living) Americans…

by clicking here

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