Friday, March 6, 2009

All the News That's Fit To Print?

Last Friday, February 27, 2009, the Rocky Mountain News published its last edition. Though I live thousands of miles from the paper’s Denver offices, this development hit me harder than the shuttering of my local King’s Supermarket that same day. Don’t get me wrong. Losing the King’s, with its excellent appetizer counter and great bakery, was a startling reminder of today’s crashing economy. But the closing of “the Rocky” only two months before its 150th anniversary is one more sign of a cosmic shift in how we get the news and maybe even in how we define what news is.

I can’t imagine life without newspapers. I need to see a story on paper to take it all in. I grew up reading the New York Times and the (North Jersey) Herald-News everyday, and when I was 17, I joined the workforce for the first time as a summer intern on the Herald-News. I spend three summers there, and although I quickly decided that the pace of newspaper work didn’t suit my temperament, I am inordinately proud of my short tenure in this noble profession. Of all the people who write for a living, newspaper reporters are the ones on the front lines, literally and figuratively. Whether they’re covering a war or a ballgame, they’re charged with getting the facts and reporting them swiftly.

Not to mention accurately. Newspaper reporters and editors subscribe to a journalistic code of ethics that goes a long way toward assuring readers that what they’re reading is legit. (I know there have been some well-publicized exceptions, but they are relatively few.) The tenets of this code—objectivity, accuracy, truthfulness, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability—are ingrained in every reporter, including summer interns, and often are displayed in newsrooms. In a touching and informative video account of the Rocky’s final days, sportswriter Jeff Legwold cites a saying that was painted on the wall at his first newspaper job: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

As a non-fiction writer, I turn to contemporary newspapers whenever I tackle a new topic. No other source comes close in helping me travel to another time period, fast. The ads, the editorials, the very language of the articles transplants me to a different time and place, and the eyewitness reports on the topic I’m researching are often the best resources available. If more newspapers go the way of the Rocky, what sources will future non-fiction book authors turn to? Faded printouts of online articles? Vast digital archives of blog comments, tweets, and instant messages?

I don’t know what the news reporting landscape will look like in 25 years, but I hope it still includes newspapers. In the process of making its way into print, an article goes through checks and balances that strengthen its style and content. While the Internet offers immediacy and accessibility, information flashes that originate here need to be augmented with the more substantive articles and investigative reports traditionally found in print.

What do you think? Will newspapers still be around in 2034? If not, what other forms of communication will fill the bill?


Unknown said...

The failure of the Rocky Mountain News is a two-fold failure of business and value. Listening to the news report on the radio (an excellent medium for multi-taskers) what became clear was that they were losing money trying to stay current; they were losing subscriptions, presumably to online readers, where the advertising dollars just wouldn't cover things.

There is a lot of talk about the wisdom of "giving away" content for free over the internet, but that's a bit of a straw man argument. People will pay for what they find valuable, and for the last 20 years the news media have de-valued themselves right into this corner they're in.

For me the moment it all began was when GHW Bush's administration decided the press would report what they were told during the Gulf War. This policy came about after the print news published a photo of Bush joking with military brass while a transport plane was off-loading military caskets. The reality of that moment was that our president was exposed and embarrassed, the press had reported what it saw, but that negative public image would not stand and so had to be contained.

Because those who control the news control what is news.

From there it wasn't much of a leap for the FCC to allow an entertainment organization to use the word "news" in its corporate branding - Fox News is an entertainment organization with the structure and appearance of a news corporation. As a result they have been very successful in retraining viewer expectations of what constitutes news as flashy, sensationalist, often irrelevant, and certainly non-objective.

So when the fourth estate is controlled by the first estate, when what passes for news must also entertain, when you see media try and use 19th century business models on 21st century technology streams, what you end up with are news organizations that cannot compete in the marketplace.

The only way for newspapers to survive is for deliver content that cannot be found elsewhere, to make themselves indispensable. If there was one newspaper that could have done the research and taken a stand and predicted this current financial crisis, that newspaper would be the go-to source for news. People would trust it, and turn to it, and value it.

As it is, the newspapers have become shadows of their former selves. They have gone back to their yellow roots and have allowed outside influences to define what they do and how they operate. I suspect they will survive, but I don't think there'll be any paper involved in the future of news.

Linda Zajac said...

The 2/16/09 issue of TIME magazine has an article called "How to save your newspaper." Haven't read it yet, but plan to.

Thank you for posting this and mentioning the saying on the wall.

Kathleen Krull said...

What a thought-provoking and succinctly written post. I mostly disagree with David above, but rather than debate ---- I wonder if there is a book idea for young readers in this topic???

Anonymous said...

It's such a both/and situation, isn't it? On the one hand, the New York Times online is so much more searchable, printable, fileable, savable. As a researcher, I find it invaluable. But I can't stand to read the newspaper that way! I want it spread out on the table, or skillfully accordioned into reading position for the train, in order to skim and absorb what I need each day. The crossword puzzle on the web? Just not as much fun -- and doesn't wake my writing muscle in the morning the way the pen on paper does. Which is the anachronism, the paper or me? Thought-provoking post, Sue!

Sue Macy said...

Kathleen: Lives of the Reporters. Go for it!

Deborah Heiligman said...

We talk about this a lot in our family. My husband teaches at the journalism school at Columbia, and of course they are trying to figure out what to do about all of this there. I am addicted to my morning NY Times and when it doesn't come I am very cranky. My 23-year-old, who is living with us for another week, looks at me like I'm nuts. He would never consider reading a paper newspaper any more. Is he the wave of the future? If so, and I believe he is, newspapers are definitely going to have to figure it out. Last year David Simon came to the J school (David Simon of THE WIRE fame) and gave a talk. He says the big mistake was putting newspapers on line for free. That they should have all gotten together--which is illegal of course--and decided to charge for online content. So it will be interesting to see what happens. Oh, one more thing--did you hear about the people who were printing up blogs and handing them out on the street? Is that a twist or what? Sue, thanks for the great post!