Friday, 24 April 2009

Newspapers: R.I.P.??

As a person whose life includes a career as a journalist (primarily in radio but subsequently free-lance in print), and as an ethicist, I tend to watch the "business" of journalism as well as work in it.

Within the space of two days, I came across two different laments over the deaths of newspapers. One was on long-time friend and excellent journalist Jim Taylor's Weblog, the other on the blog of Mike H, The Life of Writing.
Then French Fancy got into the act, and I read and then got a note from Wake Up and Smell the Coffee. A couple of other journalists added their thoughts to me. Then someone drew my attention to an article in The Atlantic Monthly by Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic, about why he blogs (and gets a lot of attention).

So I followed the "3R's" of journalism: research, reflect, (w)rite.

The following is a revised form of something published in The Western Producer. That paper has an on-line version, for which there is a subscription fee.

The changes I have made here reflect some of the on-line wisdom and concern we have been sharing in the blogsphere.

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Newspapers are making news these days -- often by going out of business.

In the U.S., Seattle Post-Intelligncer has quit printing after almost 150 years. Denver’s Rockey Mountain News is gone. The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune are going, going, . . . These are big papers -- like Canada’s National Post or Globe and Mail. Smaller, local or regional papers face similar problems.

This makes me sad. Having been a writer and broadcaster for about 30 years, it’s like seeing your neighbour have to sell his or her farm, or home. Journalists write “the rough draft of history” -- and with a degree in history, I worry about that potential loss of information, to current and future generations. That same loss makes us less aware of what’s happening in the world around us, and could happen to us. It’s hard to make sound ethical judgements in an information vacuum.

What’s happening? The biggest problem is lack of money -- from advertising. It’s basically a case of how many eyeballs (readers) a paper can “deliver” to a potential advertiser, as opposed to what a magazine, or television, or other newspaper can deliver. The problem is not new; but is getting worse. As the economy tightens, and trends shift, so do advertisers wallets. With less money, papers reduce staff and pages. (In fact, a recent report from the Mercury News in San Jose indicated the newspaper industry shed 5,900 "newsroom" jobs last year.) With fewer reporters, research fades, while governments and big corporations “massage” their messages. The quality of news can be “dumbed down,” as reporters are require to crank out stories like sausages from a sausage machine. (The image is not far-fetched; in radio, we had a deadline every hour. Exmoor Jane recounted having five deadlines per day when working for a London paper.) International events are omitted or buried as papers shrink.

As ownership is concentrated (with fewer people owning more newspapers, radio, and television), a kind of editorial “group think” sets in -- so one paper looks like another. Add the trend to make information “entertaining” (“info-tainment” is the technical word).
(French Fancy's dismay about the treatment of Natasha Richardson's death speaks directly to the matter of info-tainment.) I believe that news should be well-written and interesting. But news is news, while Monty Python and American Idol are entertainment.

Eventually, one wonders what one is really getting, and whether it is even worth reading (or bothering with a subscription).

My fear is that the loss of good newspapers will leave us all far less educated, more insulated, and increasingly self-centred. And far less capable of dealing with the challenges and pressures of daily living.

There are, I think, two rays of light in the gloom.

Instead of, or in addition to, print editions, some papers are producing electronic or “on line” editions. As people become more computer oriented, they tend to get their news through computers. Some are exclusively electronic, like B.C.’s The Tyee. Whether this will improve the overall quality of the reporting remains to be seen.

Then, there’s the return of an ancient tradition. Long before print, there were troubadours and minstrels -- poets, singers, performers. As they traveled, they would also carry the news from one place to another.

Those ancients have been replaced by others -- called “bloggers” -- who fulfill the old story-telling function, sharing bits and pieces from here and there. Sometimes professional journalists also blog -- giving a different flavor and context to their work. (There's an
interesting piece in The Atlantic Monthly by Andrew Sullivan about why he blogs.)

Newspapers, journalism, news -- everything seems to be “in process” -- “in transition.” I see it happening, to some extent, every day in the blogsphere (though writing in the blogsphere tends to be self-centred, sometimes to the point of being narcissistic -- though some bloggers provide good information and reflection on important topics). Meanwhile, politicians are trying to harness the blog world for their messages, as are (big) businesses.

But there’ll always be stories to tell, and someone will tell them.

You can trust the ol' Bear on that.


  1. We are seeing a major shift in people's confidence in the media's ability to report in depth and truthfully. We have become busier, hence we want quick running scores of important events.

    News providers are just evolving.

  2. I agree that newspapers are/were a worthy endeavor, but I must add that I've always (even as a youngster) thought that they're not really THAT important to the average man if they rely on advertisement as their main source of income. For example, how many people would seriously buy a paper every day for more than a couple of dollars? The news in them isn't that important, ya know? It's worth more to a business to get alot of ads out, than it is to the average man to read the news....

  3. I have not read a newspaper in 10 years yet Joe reads it all, then has nothing to comment on. The shame is that turning a page is so primal and enjoyable as in the anticipation of what will be on the next page. Sadly, what is on the next page is generally what one can live without knowing. Whenever Joe finds anything worth mentioning, I have already scanned the headline on my computer.

    The centrally generated news source, from which all newspapers draw their information, causes one newspaper to be like the next, with the only difference being some locally printed "gossip" concerning which neighbor has been arrested.

  4. thats very informative ...

  5. ohh surealy NO ..
    that was not my point as the second para explains it ..
    life certainly is two-fold .. more life a goose berry!

    thanks for taking some time for me ... :-)

  6. First of all thanks for mentioning me - you really do set up an article very well. Research and I are divided by a big thing - my lack of staying power when trawling through relevant articles. You speak from a base of information, I just grab emotive facts and parade them. You can tell which of us has been the journalist.

    One thing I miss about the UK are the piles of Sunday newspapers that I used to buy and which would last me the whole week. Of course they have the same here but they are in French - which I can read, but it's not the same level of pleasure

  7. First, a word of thanks to everyone who has shared a thought. I am sorry that I haven't responded sooner to some of you, but as you'll see from my most recent piece on "Chrome on the Range," I've been a bit of a busy Bear.

    lakeviewer: People's tastes for news are, indeed, changing, and thus news media themselves (thought I fear the media are "behind the curve"). But there is a significant difference between the lowest common denominator and the highest common factor, in news as well as mathematics.

    mike: On the wall in our radio newsroom there were "Ten Commandment" for our work. The first: "Thou shalt related to thine audience." And when close to 60 per cent of a newspaper's space is devoted to ads -- each appealing to a limited group of readers -- there can be precious little that is worth reading by the majority.

    dana: I can understand your frustration with the papers. You're making my point for me.

    deeps: Thanks you for the "informative" comment. I think, however, you missed the point of my comment on your blog, as vishaw has noted, and which I followed.

    FF: Giving credit where credit is due is a basic ethical rule. I used to borrow the weekend (summary) edition of The Guardian from a neighbour. The writing was good, but because I didn't often understand the context of the stories (political, economic, social, religious, etc.) I often felt I was missing something. It was very frustrating.

    Quelles journeaux français livez-vous? Le Monde, peut-être? Le Paris Match?


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