Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Saving newspapers requires "vitality"

by Larry Geller

I found myself staring vacantly at the funny sideways business section in today's Advertiser while chomping on some celery and carrot sticks and other veggies left over from a dinner.

You probably don't care what I was chomping on. I mention this for a reason.

It's pretty boring to read, right?

So was the large headline, Flurry of returns as tax deadline looms. Yeah, it's tax day and really, it would be news if somehow there were not a flurry of returns. Maybe if lots of people decided to stop paying for the war or something, now that would be news.

I actually read the article to see if there was anything interesting, or why things might be so dull in the newsroom. Nothing at all interesting except that the writer got the due date for state taxes wrong (it's Monday, April 21, not Sunday, April 20). The best line in the story for me was this quote: "It's very hectic; it's normal. This is just like every other year." Yeah, so thanks for the headline story on sameness, right?

Investigative reporting brings "vitality"

On the other hand, I'm excited when I see a front-page article by Jim Dooley or Rob Perez. Perez wrote several award-winning stories. These guys bring what I'm calling "vitality" to the page. They make it worth reading and subscribing. If I see their byline, I go right to the story, and my attention is usually well rewarded.

On the web, it seems that newspapers are trying for "engagement." Things like comments on news articles, reader reporting, blogs, and so forth.

The trouble is, readers have many choices about where they can "engage," and most of the comments, with some few exceptions, don't add anything to the stories they're attached to. Few people will read the comments anyway outside of the community of commenters. They also add nothing to the printed newspaper.

The printed newspaper tries to "engage" by giving links to videos or on-line discussions. In other words, by driving readers to the web page. With the split between paper readers and web readers growing (as some paper readers give up and go to the web, and as young people skip paper altogether), those links on paper are kind of useless for many readers. For the non-web browser (often older readers) they only add to the feeling that the newspaper is not intended for them. Maybe they only print on paper because they have to, but their hearts are on the web.

Let's grant that "engagement" works on the web. What should the print purveyors look to? I think it might be something like this: (1) accurate, insightful, relevant, deep, entertaining stories, and (2) this quality I'm calling "vitality."

Dependence on questionable wire stories instead of seeking out deeper, more complete alternative sources detracts. Why cheerlead for the war when readers are interested in how to stop it? Bring us stories and ideas about that. An AP story about how US troops go out at night failed to mention that they couldn't go out during the day. But we knew that, we expected better than we were given. Wire stories that refer to insurgents always as "anti-American" consistently obscure what we know: they may hate us simply because we occupy their country, not because we are Americans. Guess what: there are other wire services, and a couple do a better job (IMHO) than the AP.

People turn to the web for alternatives to the print press and TV wasteland. If the print press, anyway, wants to save itself, it might look at becoming more alternative.

That leads to this quality "vitality." A story about how Bush expects that the war will turn a corner soon (usually in six months) may be good reporting, but it's dead reporting. A story about the same speech but criticizing it fairly or at least analyzing it should have more vitality. See what I mean?

We need less stenography and more critical discussion. It's great when it happens.

Oh, I guess high-profile murder stories and the like also can have that vitality. It goes with the territory. Those stories are often highly entertaining. Seeking out murders, though, might not be good policy in general. \

Some news is just dull, or it can be presented in a dull way, but some of it ought to be exciting. Depending on how it is written, I mean.

Now, since we have a "conservative" national administration, it may appear that to bring on criticism, critical thinking, or analysis would be viewed as "liberal." Well, so be it. The alternative is shrinkage, irrelevancy, and poor business prospects for daily newspapers.

Polls have shown that the American people are against the war. So criticism of the war is ok. Really. And we do see some. As a reader, I want the vitality that comes from debate, from analysis. Oh, please forget about presidential candidates' haircuts. Analyzing $400 haircuts is not what I have in mind here. Analyze their policies, their voting records. Try it.

On the local scene, if papers cut investigative reporters and other critical staff, the results are predictable.

Engaging "citizen journalists" is an interesting experiment, and it's enabled by the Internet. Let's see how it goes. The trouble is, we can get that already on the Web big time. Newspaper sites, popular as they may be or become, are in competition with local and national blogs and alternative media sites. Where newspapers shine is in the vitality of their local reporting.

I can read the New York Times on-line if I wish, though their local news may not be what draws me. Local newspaper websites are in competition with other newspapers' websites too. Local reporting in print is different. But it's gotta be better than that flurry of tax return thing.

It's all a grand experiment. The buggy whip is gone, carbon paper is hard to find along with typewriters. Few people write with fountain pens. Just try to find a decent cassette recorder. One day newspapers could disappear too, though I don't think so. But they could.

There's nothing guaranteed to be around forever. I hope the newspaper biz will figure out what we readers really want (whatever that is) before computers become cheaper than a year's subscription.

Anyway, end of rant.

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