Wednesday, May 13, 2009

a declaration, a rant: Newspapers have had the longest wake ever

The other night I watched the movie The Paper for the first time. It's by Ron Howard, so there is some sap squeezed from the tree as the lead character played Michael Keaton fights for truth in a world only concerned with bottom lines and he makes his child's birth despite his wife's doubts about his priorities. I'm not as concerned about the narrative tension as the moment in time. It's 1994. Only a couple of people in the movie have cellphones. Layout is done on the computer, but there is no Internet. And in a moment of pure nostalgia from the 2009 vantage point, Glenn Close, playing a harried newspaper exec, exclaims--"I only have 350 (reporters) when the Daily News has 700!" Oh, the tragedy. 15 years later and a staff of 350 is the luxury and 50 (or less) is the norm for standard newsroom procedure.

What I'm writing has been written a million times before but only by other newspaper people--the newspaper is dying and they've had the longest wake ever. Except no one cares. Their death has been extended and exaggerated by worried columnists who'll freak if their stuff isn't printed on paper but instead read by thousands more on a computer screen. Jack Shafer in a Slate piece yesterday writes about the New York strike in the 60s and uncovers that while newspapers were desired, other media stepped into the void. We've already seen that happen, especially as newspapers missed their cultural moment to adapt and survive. More after the jump...

There will be some bigger ones hanging on--but the question is: do we need them? I don't care what people need with their coffee and doughnut, a laptop will do just as well. With info overload, can newsmagazines like The Week do the job of newspapers? The Week is essentially a blog reader feed of the prior week--all very quick. Or maybe The New York Times will come out in print only on Sundays, for the long car ride out to the Hamptons or the Jersey Shore or wherever northeast people go. The rest of the time online will do.

There can be a role for newspapers, however. The truth is: We still need people to be the judges for us. We need people to tell us what is news, what isn't, what to pay attention to and where the car crash is. Just because we have gotten that primarily from newspapers in the past doesn't mean we'll get it from there in the future, especially if iGoogle does such a heck of a job.

Also, my local newspaper just went to a redesign for their daily edition, with a front section mostly non-relevant international news on a smaller broadsheet. Their printing facility closed and they farmed it out to a town 90 miles down the road. They now have to haul in their papers further. Please, for your own survival, just go ahead and cut the print cord. Save yourself the time, the energy, the gas and the trees and just come out 3 times a week with plans to come out weekly in print two years from now. You will save yourself a whole lot of headaches while gaining national attention as newspaper columnists around the country point to you as an example and bemoan the state of print, without realizing the state of content in flourishing.

All this to say, I'm also in the middle of The Kingdom and The Power, the epic New York Times book by Gay Talese. Though I haven't gotten to the point in the book about the newspaper strike, I eagerly look forward to it. Newspapers no longer need to be viewed as a living thing, but as a dead thing. And I'm enjoying reading the history of one of our great mediums. Because it was great.

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