Support your local newspaper!

This week the Rocky Mountain News, older than the state it operates in, printed its last edition. Last month, the Seattle Post Intelligencer announced it would also close if it does not find a buyer.

I left newspapers last year — voluntarily. I saw the writing on the wall and booked a ticket for the first new media startup I could find. I’m too young to retire and too old not to know better. The paper where I worked, a New York Times Regional newspaper holding, has since lost about 40 percent of its newsroom to layoffs.

Newspapers continue to slide but the news continues to happen.

More people are venturing online but still new media has not really figured out how it can be financially be sustained.

People generally have negative feelings about the mainstream media. But often they are thinking about the cable outlets. Their local newspapers have coincidentally become insignificant to them. But here’s the problem. New media and old media are interconnected. The majority of what is read online originated from traditional media outlets. The latter often does the analysis but the former produces often produces the content upon which that analysis is done. There are some exceptions: Talking Points Memo, The Washington Independent, POLITICO and Huffington Post. But none of these outlets have the resources of any mid-size daily.

Without newspapers, we are left with nothing to analyze or critique, or fill our bird cages with for that matter.

So, what does the future hold for journalism? We are entering this lull, and I fear the future. What happens when not enough people are looking for the dirt. What happens when fewer people are picking up the phones and asking questions? What happens when the people are not informed?

I interviewed a few folks on this topic recently: Traditional print journalists (dinosaurs), new media pioneers (rock throwers) and media watchdogs (whiners) to answer this question.

“They are going to continue to take what you do, and do whatever they are going to do with it. But we don’t have to go there,” said Jeremy Wallace, a political reporter with 15 years of experience in print journalism. “There is a premium on analysis… People want to know what something means.”

The two medias are interconnected. The latter analyzes the former. But the former produces the content. There are some exceptions such as Talking Points Memo, The Washington Independent, POLITICO and The Huffington Post. Recently, even the Daily KOs appears to be trying to break its own news. But they don’t have the manpower that traditional newspapers have. Without those traditional newspapers, we are left with nothing to analyze or critique, or fill our bird cages with for that matter. But the market has not yet begun to value that content. And as a smart man once told me, newspapers have a very flawed business model currently in place. They are often called to write upon the same companies who advertise in their papers. And thus emerges a sect of golden cows — companies a certain newspaper won’t touch — and front house deals — typically softball stories that originate in the front office and are intended only to garner favor.

Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the Daily Kos, has no love for traditional media. He says its problems are of its own making. And he believes this void will be soon be filled by a better alternative.
“The traditional media has failed in large part to do its job. An aggressive media looking for the truth would not have let George Bush get away with murder the last eight years,” Moulitsas said. “Their failures stripped away all moral authority they might’ve wished to claim.”

Moulitsas says there is a rise of ethnic media as well as online media. Even as television, radio and newspapers lose ground the need for news is still being met.

“And online, I’m seeing new investigative journalistic outfits rise. Some will fail, but some will gain a foothold and form the seedlings of our future media landscape. The internet is definitely disrupting the old guard, and while it’s not the solution to every problem, it can’t do any worse than the current media crowd,” Moulitsas said.

As far as objectivity, he said, it’s over-rated.

“The British have a lively newspaper culture that is fantastically muckraking and effective. And thoroughly partisan. There is nothing inherently valuable about ‘objective’ news, just as there’s nothing inherently valuable about newspapers,” Moulitsas said. “If papers went out of business, we as a nation would lose nothing. There would be a news void, no doubt, but the market would fill it, just like the market filled the need for strong progressive voices by giving rise to new liberal outlets like Daily Kos, Huffington Post, and so on.”

In a way, Moulitsas said what is happening in media today is perhaps an evolution back to its basic principles.

“Considering that this nation’s founding press was rabidly partisan, maybe we’re just going back to our roots. Some media outlets will cling to the ideal, but in reality, people crave the attitude that opinionated media offers,” Moulitsas said. “And if you can make it funny like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, even better.”

Michael Tedesco, founder of the Comments From Left Field, a lefty blog site, has a more tempered view of traditional media’s future.

Steve Rendall, senior analyst with Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the New York City-based media watchdog group said newspapers, specifically have a hard road ahead. But even still, he does not see anything in the market capable of filling the void.

“If they (newspapers) can settle for smaller profits. If they can extract themselves from being corporate prerogatives. They will survive,” Rendall said.

Rendall said it is hard to imagine a media landscape without The New York Times or The Washington Post. It is hard to imagine a media without the massive number of reporters on the streets, that only newspapers can provide.

3 Responses to “Support your local newspaper!”

  1. tas says:

    I agree we still need newspapers as organs to keep democracy running because gathering and creating news is expensive — something that blogs don’t have the money to do. (Few do, but the relative size of operations like TPM is very small, despite the size of their readership.) But the current attitude of newspapers — you must support us or else, basically — isn’t helping them.

    Essentially, the internet came in and ruined everything for the newspapers historic business model. It’s not just the fact that I can read news from all over the globe now (articles that are often quite superior to what I can get in my local press), but Craigslist proved that the internet is now the medium for classified advertisements. I understand it’s the loss of classified revenue which hurts newspapers the most.

    To combat this revenue loss, newspapers have decided to make cuts to their actual news departments. The cuts have extended to the point of ridiculousness, as evidenced in the paltry size of today’s local papers in many towns and cities. Recently, I decided to read my local paper for a week to see if I was missing anything. What I found was an A-section that was only 6-8 pages long on a daily basis — Thursday as well and Monday. Of the actual local news, there was generally 2-3 pages of it. The national and international news articles they published were all AP junk, and sucked. I mean, this was an inferior product not just compared to the internet, but compared to newspapers 10-15 years ago. I remember the Thursday papers actually having some depth.

    Now if you want depth in a dead tree in your hands, you have to get the New York Times — it’s really one of the only choices left on the market. As for local news, the big city dailies have vacated local reporting to let alternative weeklies and local weeklies — which are usually free — take over coverage. And since they only focus on local politics, they often have much better stories on town and neighborhood matters.

    This leaves your typical city daily newspaper up shit creek without a paddle.

    Newspapers shot themselves in the foot by not having a Plan B business model to reply to the internet. Just like American auto manufacturers laughed at Toyota and Honda when they entered the US auto market in the 1960s, newspapers laughed at the internet. They didn’t take it seriously. Then blogs started running circles around them — especially on the editorial and op/ed side of things.

    The writing format of blogs inherently calls for less bullshit and a need to get straight to the point. Your standard op/ed piece, in the other hand, must be at least 800 words in length. So for newspapers, they have tired old writers making longwinded statements and filling it with as much bullshit as possible to expand the length of a piece, whereas a good blogger can often make the same statement in a couple paragraphs. Wham, done. The blog format is less restricting.

    As for articles themselves, the American media does seem to have a problem with overemphasis on objectivity. Not that I’m all for being biased, but … The old media never wants to come out and say when a figure is lying. They’ll print what that person says verbatim, then try to level it off with reactions to a statement or situation, but they never get to the actual truth of the matter. Just reporting what other people have said. I think this stark contrast is always best expressed by the Daily Show. Jon Stewart has made a career out of calling out when people are full of shit, and just how much shit they are full of. And while the old media will write an article about, for example, Dick Cheney claiming that the insurgency in Iraq is in its “last throes”, Stewart will show that interview with Cheney while showing explosions in Iraq happening at the same time as Cheney speaks; on the same screen. Call it a late night comedy show, not a serious news show, or anything else, but the fact of the matter is that our current media will not call out politicians on their bullshit. They’ll simply report what other people have said. Instead of moving on, they then report that Cheney said he didn’t mean “last throes” or look up “throes” in the dictionary.. No! Noooo! Say the man is full of shit and move ooonnnn! It’s painfully frustrating to read this crap.

    So what can newspapers do? It starts with helping themselves, realizing their traditional business model is dead and figuring out what they can do to earn profits again. You have to get the internet savvy reader — for they’re more of us coming onto the market as computers become more integrated into society — and keep the traditional readership. Someone who has been living in a city for their whole life who wants good local news coverage.

    Newspapers have to provide more information than the television news, which they often don’t these days. Anytime the local paper in the state where I grew up raises its subscription rates, my parents don’t resubscribe. They’ll wait for the paper to call to offer them a discounted subscription rate, then they’ll resubscribe and start complaining about how much more the local paper sucks compared to the last time they subscribed. More often than not these days, whenever I visit I see the local weekly paper on the counter instead. It’s chockful of town news, town specific classifieds, and it’s even free.

    I say this to point out that it’s not just the internet which is beating dailies, but the dailies have shot themselves in the foot when they started cutbacks on their news departments.

    I’m not totally for the British model where the Tories and Labor each have their own papers. London is a huge market that can support multiple dailies — we’re dealing with smaller markets here which only have room for one newspaper. But newspaper articles should call out bullshit more often, perhaps having blog-style writing on the front page which allows a writer to stop the journalistic wankery and get to the point immediately. I have to say that writing actual articles is an artform — an artform I hate. Because throughout the writing process, I want to put “I think this…” or “I think that…” in there but, of course, you’re not allowed. So you must think of a way to write where people can read between the lines, which then gets into longwinded wankery. Wah-lah, I have a “news” piece. I hate it. I just want to get to the point. Being a blogger allows me to do that. Perhaps the ultimate irony here is that the straight forward nature of blogs is what drives readership to them, and we should also be the audience that daily papers target — yet dailies won’t adopt some practices of blogs.

    So one thing is better writing. Another thing is better local coverage. Dailies must compete with free local weeklies. If I can get more detailed local news for free elsewhere, why would I buy a daily paper?

    Both of these mean reinvesting in news departments. Papers are going to have to spend money, but they shot themselves by divesting from news. That’s nobody else’s fault but their own.

    Finally, they might want to give the “daily” concept some thought. If paper costs are going up and dailies are going to press on a Monday, yet they can only offer 5-6 pages of actual news, what’s the point? Why not, for example, skip publishing editions on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday? In lieu of those missing days, expand the news coverage for the other 4 days by 10-15 pages. It makes room for more local news that should be published; advertising can possibly be more targeted, too. Just a thought, because the Monday edition of newspapers is barely the size of a pamphlet these days. Is that really worth it?

  2. walkerdev says:

    Really great response. The other thing I was thinking about, in addition to some of the things you said — better writing, changing the size to suit the need and size of the readership from day-to-day as well as reinvesting in newsrooms — is the fact that the entire industry needs to re-introduce itself to their consumers.

    One issue newspapers face is the industry in itself does not have anything resembling a trade association. You have got hundreds of groups but nothing that can really work on repairing its brand. Newspaper marketing departments are really antiquated. They hang out at job fairs and community expos as if their problem is local and not systemic.

    But I have to disagree on one point. I think newspapers should perhaps be more aggressive when it comes to making people realize what they lose when they lose their local newspaper. I mean in general I agree. Newspaper folks tend to be pretty smug and are never really effective when it comes to delivering a message. But I think in terms of a message, it should be pointing to its purpose. But the second part of that, which you also mentioned — is doing a better job of delivering to its readers.

    It’s really a complicated problem for a thoroughly disenfranchised industry. But at the same time, I think someone will figure out a solution. And then the newspapers left standing will fall in line. I mean they are not good at innovating but they are pretty motivated to try new things.

  3. tas says:

    Since we’re mostly in agreement (I agree about the trade associations, too), I only have one quibble:

    But I have to disagree on one point. I think newspapers should perhaps be more aggressive when it comes to making people realize what they lose when they lose their local newspaper.

    Before the internet, local papers were (or should have bee, at least) great for four things: world news, national news, state news, and local news. In the internet era anyone can goto better sources online to get world and national news — the local paper can’t really compete anymore. So what local papers should have focused on instead — at the very least — is improving their state and local coverage. Instead they skimped on everything.

    Looking at this from, say, the perspective of a historian, I know the value of newspapers. If I’m looking for news of important national events in America, I check the NY Times archives; in the United Kingdom, I check the Times of London archives. If I were researching a state or city, I would go for their local paper… Except after the internet era began, since the local papers have cut their local news departments to the point where I have to wonder what kind of coverage I’ll get from them. So when you say that we need to realize what we;re losing when we lose the local paper, I would contend that, even though many dailies are still in print, they’ve already lost a lot of their value.

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