That article

Dateline: Mon 17 Aug 2009

With gratitude to wide-reading/ranging friend Tom Henderson, who sent the following link from last week, when it was fresh. (Sorry, I've taken a boys-break: a weekend of doing zilch).

This is a long and thoughtful piece by longtime newspaper writer/editor/contributor Bill Wyman, who neatly lays it out: five reasons why newspapers are dying.

We all know the first one -- this was essentially a business, people, get over the misty eyes already, and that biz model has had a colossal failure. But I like how Wyman frames it: we thought we were delivering news, but really, we were a vehicle/we are a vehicle, for advertising.

The truth is, in my newsrooms, there was always a ferocious disconnect between the hard-working, heroic reporters who gathered the news and the editors at the very top and the publisher who printed it.

Once upon a time, when the Indianapolis News was still around, albeit on life support, then exec editor Frank Caperton (who had drifted from the News to the Star) met with a bunch of nervous nellie writers to console us. These were all feature writers; the subject was the future of features.

"What about the News?" asked then Talk of the Town/social columnist Donna Mullinix, after we had gotten our own needs addressed. "Is it going to close?"

Caperton went on for a full five minutes, explaining how much publisher Gene Pulliam loved the News and how devoted he was to keeping it afloat, before adding the killer words:

"But this is a business."

Some of us were shocked; we never knew. A business! Gasp. Most refused to believe those truer-words-were-never-spoken and continued to plug away, thinking we had jobs for life. (or until death).

Wyman also hits hard on features sections being a real drain on newspaper resources -- and worse -- a lot of foolishness, in his view.  Features produce drek, is his central message (he cites stories from a paper in his area -- Baltimore, best as I can tell).

Here's one of his killer graphs. relating not just to features but the overall inspidness of most papers:

"For generations, broken-down section editors have patted themselves on the back for aggregating stories like 'Free burrito for teachers' and 'Post Office food drive.' Continuing this restaurant metaphor, the web rewards people who’ve put better platters together, who have a good taste sense and a knack for finding great new dishes. Newspapers, by contrast, specialized in blandness. That’s an advantage if you’re the only choice, and you don’t want any complaints. But when you’re not, it’s a crushing disadvantage. Beyond that, newspapers are actually quite exclusionary; they only want the foods they’ve prepared on their platter. "

His final words are my particular fave:

"Serve the community. Don't publish crap. Tell folks stuff they might not want to hear. Grow a pair."

Here is the link:


linda [unverified] said:

wow.......(with my eyes big as saucers)

2009-08-19 10:15:56

Old Grouch [Member] said:

Well, a day late and off the front page, but FWIW:

"But this is a business."

I don't buy it, or, at least, I don't buy it as the sole raison d'etre.

People don't start businesses solely to "make a lot of money." (It's usually "to do this neat/fun/useful/ exciting/ego-enhancing thing AND make a lot of money.") Newspapers also didn't get started to "sell eyeballs to advertisers," they were started for ego; for power; for influence; to fill a need; and, yes, to serve society. The advertising was there to pay for it.

"Consumers don't pay for news" is facile, but inaccurate. Wyman's statement confuses two very different issues: How newspapers meet their opeating costs, and the role of the consumer in the mix. No, subscription dollars alone don't meet the papers' expenses (they did 200 years ago). But consumers DO "pay (their money PLUS their attention) for news." What they GET is news+advertising, with (hopefully) enough "news" (which, unsurprisingly, can be advertising) in the mix that they will continue to participate in the transaction.

Things fell apart once the old-time proprietors had sold out to Wall Street and the "professional managers" were brought in. Instead of the papers being "the product," something with a reputation and standards, they became "the bait," something to attract and trap those eyeballs.

Everything else that has happpened to newspapers follows from this change. The blandness, the corner-cutting, the lack of investment, the emphasis on style over substance. Bait, after all, is just an expense (so cut the costs). And bait must be attractive (so make it bland, make it shiny, dumb it down). Quality? Measured by cost/thousand. Reputation? How well you get along with the ad agencies.

They forgot that those freeloading readers were vital to their business. They've even forgotten how to be attractive to readers (part 2 of Wyman's piece). Newspapers lost their way; no wonder they're in trouble.

2009-08-20 14:15:55

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