Monday, March 16, 2009

NEWSPAPERS: The Death Spiral

I love newspapers. I read The Toronto Star every day, mostly before I even touch the keyboard and head out onto the internet. But in saying that, I have to admit The Star feels a lot like non-caffeinated coffee these days, after years of drinking high-test (a metaphor, I don't drink coffee, one of the reasons I was drummed out of the reporters' union [G]). It's a pallid shadow of itself. And so is the newspaper industry.

There was a day and time where I read four dailies and at least one weekly. And that was AFTER I left the business full-time. After I moved to radio back in the early 80's, I would read The Star, The Toronto Sun and The Toronto Globe and Mail, race through the Brampton Daily Times (where I was a columnist on various subject matters) and read the twice-weekly Brampton Guardian, my professional home for most of the preceding decade. I had never worked a job in my life before becoming a sportswriter. And some cynics will point out it was the last full-time job I ever had, to boot. I met an awful lot of good people in those newspaper years. And some are still left in the dying throes of a millennia-long business that has a future measured in years, not decades.

Clay Shirky has an essay on the subject that is scary and insightful. I read it and realized just how innocent I was back then.

My main aim each week was to extract as much editorial space for sports out of the advertising department as I could get. We were forever leaving material out because those ad guys just HAD to run some niggling little ad, instead of letting some little Johnny or Jill derive immense pleasure for reading their name in the paper for having scored a goal. I even befriended the ad guys, hoping sympathy for my plight (and those of Johnny and Jill) would get them to shrink an ad (or seven) and give me ten more inches to list house league badminton scores, or whatever else I was fighting for. It worked every now and then. And every now and then, they'd try to play me, by opening up one or two completely empty pages. I was always prepared with a Remember Winter photo page or a Remember Summer photo page when they pulled that stunt. Only time they ever caught me was when they did it two weeks running. But as evidenced here, I can write a lot about nothing, and I called their bluff.

For me, being a sports reporter was about the best job ever invented. Other than the weekly proof-reading in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, the job was perfect. Night work and no need to REALLY be there until a civilised hour of the morning. Free entry to things I would have paid to see. The seasonal changes meant that JUST as I was getting sick and tired of hockey, it was ball season. The reverse happened every fall. New waves of people to meet each year. The pleasure of working under a Canadian icon, Ken Giles, the long-time sports editor of The Guardian. The fact that they didn't force me to take vacations (I worked just short of three years straight without a vacation, at one point).

But all things come to an end. I had an ego and a personality clash that prompted me to move on to a radio career. I have had some regrets over the years for the decision. But the unionization of the place would have spelled the end of my newspaper career within a couple of years anyway. And now, the situation newspapers find themselves in, makes me glad I didn't stick around.

Make no mistake, I don't think this is really newspapers' fault, as much as I think it's just natural evolution. As I said, I know people in the industry. They are smart, dedicated and WANT to find a way to keep the old way of life operational AND serve a customer base with different needs, wants, and abilities to circumvent that that was the newspaper of our youth.

I stopped reading The Times first. It went belly up. The Guardian went next. I didn't have any Johnnies or Jills to follow in the local paper. My nieces and nephew made no move to join any team that would garner the occasional write-up. And I wasn't the most ardent food shopper, the main reason MOST of Brampton gets The Guardian for. In fact, I phoned The Guardian and made the free delivery go away, because the company was mandating its carriers put the paper in the mail-box, something I hated with a passion. And since they would NOT allow for the placement of the paper in the front door, no more Guardian. The Globe (another former employer) went next, followed by The Sun, about two years ago. All I'm left with now is The Star (yes, another former employer).

The Star of even three, four years ago, was a humongous tract of paper daily. The Saturday Star was Canada's NY Times. My lack of muscle fitness is directly related to The Star turning puny right before my eyes. I can now look at every page in The Star during my stay in the reading room during my morning rituals. Never could say that in the past. I put out newspapers in the blue bin once every month or six weeks, instead of weekly. The Star has even changed format twice in the last 18 months, making the paper less-useful with each re-design.

Still, it's my connection with my professional past. And I'll be taking it until the last edition comes out ... which might very well be within my lifetime. Don't forget, I'm an old coot.

What can be done to save newspapers? Not much. USA Today was the trojan horse that spelled the doom of the industry. It reduced all stories to news bites, mere paragraphs or two about each thing under the headline. If anything, it helped develop A.D.D. in newspaper readers. Its success has been mimicked by the internet AND newspapers ever since. Most with degrees of success in the low teens. Even Time and Newsweek suffered from the same reading trends, resulting in the pamphlets with multiple checklists that those magazines have become. I'm awaiting the day when a newspaper publishes NOTHING but headlines (the fun part) and a bunch of checklists. The webification of the art form will have become complete.

A newspaper can only survive today with local news about interesting people. They ARE out there, it takes time to find them and journalists have to get away from their desks and the phones on them, and get out amongst the people. There isn't a will nor a budget to do that these days. Newspapers have to BREAK stories that require connecting dots. Mere one fact and out breaking stories no longer survive long enough to make tomorrow's early edition. They will have been on the web for hours by then. It's ANALYSIS and EXPLANATION that still remain the purview of the newspaper. At that, newspapers should REVERSE the USA Today model and make stories LONGER, not try to fit in as many paragraphs masquerading as stories as possible.

None of that's going to happen. The Rocky Mountain News died last month and it won't be the first of the great North American papers to go this year. MOST will morph into web-sites and there-in lies the future of journalism. At least I hope it does.

'Cuz, if it comes down to we bloggers being journalism in toto, the world will be a scary, less-informed space!

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