Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Newspapers in a Death Grip

The latest edition of the New Yorker offers an intriguing article, "Out of Print" by Eric Alterman, about the end of newspapers.

The initial paragraphs are an interesting history of newspapers in the U.S. Being a Virginian, I always thought this state had the first newspaper, the Virginia Gazette, but apparently Massachusetts beat the us to it by about 34 years.

The article in The New Yorker gives the Huffington Post credit for taking information digital, although this has been occurring in varying stages for a long time.

The article points out that without traditional media, there would be nothing for websites like HuffPo and similar sites to sound off about. This is the most important point of the entire article.

The author states it thusly:

... Huffington fails to address the parasitical relationship that virtually all Internet news sites and blog commentators enjoy with newspapers. (emphasis mine)

According to this very long story, HuffPo has created a community; hence, the hits from unique users. That means popularity and advertising revenue.

Everybody has something to say, it seems, and everyone wants the opportunity to say it.

Never mind that for the most part the opinions rattled off are worthless. Occasionally there is a gem among the inane, but it's infrequent at best. Essentially everyone is talking at once and no one is listening.

I have a naive view of newspapers in that I believe in the Fourth Estate (interestingly, I could not find a good definition online for what this means).

To me the Fourth Estate means an organization that watches out for the Greater Good. It sides with no one and nothing except Truth. It doesn't decry torture on one hand and okay it on the other simply because the government says water boarding is legal, for example.

I believe newspapers should hold views of the common man. If newspapers are political, they should only be so in a push for equality and in defense of the common man. If the views of the common man are completely opposite, as it seems these days, then maybe it's time for newspapers to give up this charade of neutrality and become a blue paper or a red paper and move on.

Newspapers have gotten away from Truth, however one defines that. They are now only about advertising dollars. That comes first. The news is secondary, something to fill the pages.

I have watched with something akin to horror as publishers have made decisions that have ultimately ruined their product. They've cut news staff, changed layouts and focus, and generally created the situation that exists now. In essence, newspaper owners have destroyed their own reason for being.

I agree entirely with this statement:

The columnist Molly Ivins complained, shortly before her death, that the newspaper companies’ solution to their problem was to make “our product smaller and less helpful and less interesting.” That may help explain why the dwindling number of Americans who buy and read a daily paper are spending less time with it; the average is down to less than fifteen hours a month.

By cutting staff, publishers have mutilated the sense of community that HuffPo professes to have found and taken advantage of. How can a community feel that the newspaper is a part of it if there is no presence?

If reporters do not attend events, from pancake breakfasts to government meetings, the relevancy of the newspaper ends. The community at large does not know the journalists and reporters and has no connection. They have no sense of ownership and participation in the news and thus no feeling that their needs and desires are reflected in the pages.

It is the knowledge of communities, whether that community is as small as a neighborhood or as large as a state - or these United States - that is missing. It takes a village to write a newspaper, frankly. One or two people can't do it all.

They miss far too much.

I am of the opinion that the Internet is not killing newspapers. Newspapers survived television.

Their demise began in the 1980s. Was it a result of deregulation, with the news now in in the hands of a few - a few whose motive is profit, not Truth?

This is not a problem of revenue or advertising. It is a political decision to make newspapers irrelevant. This is because newspaper stories, unlike the soundbites of TV, actually have depth. TV says such and such happened - a good, well-researched newspaper story tells you why it happened. TV does not do that particularly well.

When I read a newspaper, it is because I want to know the whys of an event. Or why a person is who he or she is. Only a well-written story can give me that information in a concise, if sometimes lengthy, method of communication. It would take hours of news footage to tell the same story.

The people in power - whoever that may be - do not want the whys of a story to be known and well understood.

This is why stories about the countdown to the battle of Iraq, for example, seldom touched on the past (which could have indicted the nation for its role in aiding and abetting the sovereign nation we were conquering and which never questioned the government rhetoric). This was a political decision in the newsroom. It had little to do with advertising.

I believe print edition of newspapers have a place. If ultimately they do not, then an electronic version of a newspaper, one in which journalists are paid to report real news and features and to be a part of the community, is a necessity.

Whether that online newspaper becomes a place of news or a place of inane chatter is in part up to the public and very much in the hands of the publisher.

Without good, dedicated staff and support of a publisher who wants to put out a good product that is again the voice of the common man, newspapers will indeed fail.

And then all we'll have left are a million opinions, and not an ounce of Truth.


  1. By Jove, I think you've got it! I, too read for the why. And the who, where, what, and how.

    I have been a reader of newspapers since I was a kid—back when they contained actual news. Used to, a paper would last a while—it actually had news. I couls pick it up on and off all day and find something new each time.

    Now papers are ad-driven rather than news driven, and we're the poorer for it. But we can read them a lot faster.

    Darn it!

  2. There will always be a newspaper beside me as I have my cup of coffee. I miss the good ole investigative journalism that once was a staple of newspapers. I'm tired frankly of hearing the word "community", almost as tired as hearing the phrase "young professionals". Our local paper seems to be shrinking and is touting the "community" aspect which they sorely crave. I think I read they are even getting rid of Neighbors now, which I felt had a place, yet was too segregated to be effective to really be "community" driven. Another one of those good ideas poorly executed. Now, it seems to me they are looking to have local bloggers do their job, for no pay. Big mistake.

  3. Ms. E, one of my points is that there aren't enough people for the investigative journalism. That kind of thing takes time, and if a reporter is busy covering three counties, when is there time to do anything more than cover the surface? It simply can't be done.

    I think the community thing is overdone myself, but this article touted it as the reason for HuffPo's success and newsprints' loss. I think it is the lack of personnel that most hurts newspapers.

  4. Agreed. But I think part of the problem is that newspapers don't want to "buy the cow if they get the milk for free", hence my stance that instead of hiring people or paying a fair wage they're becoming more dependent on other's doing their job for free. In the long run having a reporter cover three counties dilutes the paper's substance. Penny wise, pound foolish...

  5. I don't buy newspapers. I used to have a paper delivered but that was only to support the paper round of a boy across the road.

    When he quit, we cancelled.

    My boyfriend loves to read newspapers though.

  6. Excellent! I hope you can get this published somewhere. I saw a PBS show on this topic, largely around what has been happening to the LA Times and many other newspapers have been following suit, going more local and less national. So what, now they want me to read my local paper, the Roanoke Times AND the Washington Post. Have you noticed Iraq is rarely on the RT cover anymore. I cringed when I saw the Hokie Bird Cover.

    Two most excellent points: That blogs and online news sites are not going out and doing investigative reporting but are mostly commenting on the reports others in news print make. And the sad truth about the medium being in the hands of a few who have political agendas and only see it as a money making business.

    It's as bad as what has happened to health care. I'm so discouraged by it all.

  7. What an excellent analysis. I think you are spot on in much of this. Mind you, your faith in the common man may be misplaced. My experience in Another Country is that the papers which cater to the common man back torture and other brutal practices and festoon their papers with naked girls sporting large chests! They are also blatantly partial in their political affiliations - mostly to the Right of course. That's where the money and the bigotries are. There are far more of such papers here than papers trying to establish the Truth and communicate it. And these papers have much smaller readerships. Millions buy papers to gawp at page three girls, get themselves up to date on celebrity gossip and read calls to "hang 'em and flog 'em" (not the page three girls and celebs, but they are sexually prudish when it comes to homosexuality and so on). A few hundred thousand buy papers to find out what is happening in the Congo, for example, and what went wrong with Northern Rock. All I am saying is that you are probably speaking on behalf of the ears of the unCommon man and woman, those who are listening, not just talking, and looking at the world in search of understanding and enlightenment, not at pretty people in search of titillation. Which just makes the need the greater, in my opinion. A free and informed press telling things as they are is essential to the proper functioning of a Democracy, at both local and national level. The commercialisation and commodification of the media have been disastrous to this.

  8. Oops, meant to mention. The Fourth Estate. I vaguely remember this refers back to the Three Estates represented in the States General in old France. The first estate was the clergy, the second the nobility and the third the common people. Something like that. Anyway, the Fourth Estate were those who stood outside the system to observe and report on it: the press. I think.

  9. Media consolidation has always been a problem. My old hometown paper was owned by Ottaway Newspapers, which was in turn owned by Dow Jones, and is now owned by that horrible Australian person.

    As early as 20 years ago, I had friend who were working on a small newspaper who were told that they could work no more than exactly 29-1/2 hours, 30 hours being the cutoff point for benefits like health insurance.

    But in short, you're so right that newspapers have MADE themselves irrelevant.


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