The hometown newspaper in the city I work in just announced it will cut home delivery to just three days per week. The reason, of course, is that it just isn’t making money off the print editions and must focus time and resources on its online product, along with mobile and tablet platforms.
It’s a sad state of affairs, when you consider the historic nature of the announcement: After nearly 200 years, this city no longer has a true daily newspaper.
Even sadder, in my estimation, is the fact that the leadership at the paper’s parent company continues to point fingers at the Internet for the demise of the printed product. And rather than figure out how to survive, they continue to hasten to rush toward extinction. To wit:
Readers have long clamored for a better news product. This particular newspaper cut its newsroom staff in half a few years back — from about 200 to about 100 — which, no matter how you slice it, means less news. I’ve never done a story count, but the decrease in quality over the past several years has been evident. I spent a dozen years competing against journalists from this newspaper, and always found them on top of the game. Recently, the paper is clearly scrambling just to put news on pages — and it’s often not compelling, important news, but news the paper believes will sell more papers.
Of course, the paper had to cut positions. It was bleeding money, both from wages and from a multi-million-dollar printing press installed to allow the paper the ability to print color on almost every page. The idea behind the press, of course, was to talk more advertisers into buying color ads. Color ads mean more expensive ads, which means more money for the paper. Didn’t work out that way.
So here we are.
The paper couldn’t afford the journalists, so it offered buyouts to get rid of as many as possible. The product suffered. Readers noticed. In response, the decision is to eliminate even more jobs, but concentrate on the electronic product.
Here’s the deal: The product is still crappy, whether it’s in print or online. Cutting costs by cutting journalists will never never never never never fix your dwindling readership.
Know what? I’m not sad.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as journalists eulogize the industry. And of course the claim is without proper, trained journalists, the nation will fall apart. Sure, bloggers are telling the news too. But they aren’t real journalists, are they?
This is hogwash.
Our notion of professional journalism and journalism ethics is relatively new, considering the age of newspapers themselves. One of America’s first newspapers, the New England Courant, was published by Ben Franklin’s older brother, James, and was filled with fictitious accounts from fictitious correspondents — satire and opinion pieces. The year was 1721, and until that time, news sheets were filled with news from overseas.
But “journalism” in America became something much different. It became a way to criticize, to needle the establishment, to raise awareness and whip up discontent. It was meant to inform and entertain. It was political, biting, and sometimes dangerous. It was the life’s blood of each community.
That didn’t change much through the 1900s — even through the 1950s. Newspapers were largely a reflection of their editors. But they’d lost something, even by then: They’d already become an industry, and men had already become very, very rich, just by selling information.
Over the past hundred years, the problem has only increased, to the point where huge corporations have dominated the news industry for decades, and they made a lot of money.
But information wants to be free. And we want it to be free.
The news industry has dumbed the news down, just to sell newspapers, to catch audiences. It is rarely the bastion of truth and justice it once was, yet it masquerades behind the ideals of objectivity. There is no objectivity in the news; the object is to make money.
The truth is, the common man is taking the news back. In our local communities, local bloggers are telling the news — with their own spin. And that spin leads others to tell the news from their side. There are debates online. There is conversation. There is, truly, a freedom to print anything. A real freedom of a real press.
The news industry will eventually die — at least in terms of being the leading information source. But the news itself will live on. Wherever there is injustice, there will be a voice to speak out against it. Wherever there is need, there will be a pen. Because this new breed of journalists realizes what the old guard forgot long ago: It’s not about money. It’s about doing what’s right.
To be honest, I don’t know much about The Day, or theday.com. Until today, I’d never heard of James H. Smith, who is, allegedly, a 42-year veteran of the news industry and member of the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame.
TheDay.com ran an excerpt from Mr. Smith’s induction into the Hall of Fame the other day — a forceful, though desperate, attempt to defend his former industry against the bloggers who’ve attempted to unseat true journalists from their position atop the summit of the Mount of Truth:
It is undeniable that new information technology, which is bestowing on us amazing communication tools like Twitter and Facebook, can promote democracy. But when cyberspace starts buzzing pejoratively about how a free and open society no longer needs a news media to tell it what the news is, democracy is endangered.
The bloggers who disparage Brian Williams or Diane Sawyerfor choosing what fits in a half hour of news or who say editors shouldn’t be the arbiters of what news is, can happily join the marketplace of ideas; but they can’t pretend to know the tenets of journalism as they blithely opine into a computer screen.
It is the job of journalists to decide what is news. It’s not the job of anyone else. Editors cannot let those who would denigrate the fundamental role of a free press in a democracy get away with such demagoguery. A professional press, printed, broadcast or cyberspaced, means a staff of dedicated news men and women with ethics codes, standards, education and training.
This is an interesting, but misguided, argument.
First, the lie: Journalists love to tell readers/viewers/listeners that bloggers are just pajama-clad whiners, gleefully hammering away at their keyboards without regard for the truth — all while popping pimples in the mirror and not showering. Bloggers are untrained, unethical, incapable of deciding what is interesting or necessary for the rest of us to read.
The truth is, many bloggers started blogs out of frustration, because the news media has lost its way. Many bloggers are, in fact, former journalists who have been displaced (thanks to newspapers and television programs that have done such a great job of retaining their audiences that they’re barely staying in business). Sure, there are bad apples. But there are plenty of those in “real” journalism, too.
And let’s look at the other part of the argument — the one where journalists decide “what’s news.”
Journalists don’t decide that at all. What they actually decide is what they’ll write about, and what they’ll print. But it is the READERS who decide what’s news — because only the READER can decide what they read.
Mr. Smith has managed to prove so eloquently why newspaper circulation is bleeding. Our newspapers and journalists are so far out of touch with readers that they can’t even see the readers’ value anymore. It isn’t new for the reader’s sake, but for the journalist’s sake. I’d argue that if journalists continue the path they’re on, they’ll be left talking only to themselves.