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June 7, 2008

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Newspaper Eulogy: A Footnote

At the end of that last session, I got to ask my question, which was sort of a continuation of the train of thought begun in this post.

So to sum up the session, five people from Newspaperland spent an hour in somewhat gross adulation of The Newspaper. They each began their remarks with an earnest tale of how they became swept up in the newspaper biz, and concluded by bemoaning the misfortunes that have befallen their beloved industry. And then, goaded on by the moderator, each panelist discoursed at length on such thrilling topics as “Why everyone should give money to a newspaper” and “Why reporters should get paid more.”

When we finally got to the question-and-answer part of the session, I asked, “What do we mean when we talk about ‘saving The Newspaper’?” A newspaper is actually a collection of rather disparate things, I pointed out. And I inferred from the panelists’ remarks that some of The Newspaper’s contents seem more urgent candidates for salvation than others.

Coverage of high school football games, political punditry, and breezy trend stories, for example — all typical and significant components of many newspapers — might not be in any danger of imminent death. Nor, some would argue, might Democracy suffer much if they were. Yet [Newspaper Guild chairman] Linda Foley speaks of 2,500 journalists leaving the industry last year as though each of them was out on the streets exposing slumlords and investigating groundwater quality.

Serious, detailed, local, investigative journalism is a relatively small component of what composes the modern newspaper. As is nuanced, context-rich news analysis. Or even probing coverage of school district developments, city council meetings, business mergers, etc. All of these things used to sit rather innocuously alongside the flood of rehashed national and international briefs, crime reports, traffic accidents, weather updates, game recaps, home decor tips, pizza coupons, casserole recipes, movie reviews, and gossip columns that make up your typical newspaper. But I suspect the union of all these types of content in a single package has always been something of a shotgun wedding. And in the age of the long tail, there are fewer and fewer reasons why a cobbled-together Frankenstein monster like The Newspaper should exist.

If what we want to ask is “How can we save serious, detailed, local investigative journalism?” then I suspect we can have a more focused and productive conversation if we actually asked that question. Ditto if the question is “How can we make sure the local school board meeting is covered?” When folks rightly say that there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all answer to the problems plaguing journalism, it’s because we lack even a one-size-fits-all question. “How do we save The Newspaper?” certainly isn’t it.

(To be fair, Joel Kramer has given us a reasonable idea of what journalism he would like to save with MinnPost, his nonprofit endeavor, which sometimes feels like the wagging finger of Kramer himself, especially in its nannyish, condescending marketing — “A thoughtful approach to news. For people who care about Minnesota.” But for all my snark about Kramer and MP, I applaud the attempt.)

There’s a lot I won’t miss about The Newspaper. And what I would miss, I firmly believe society can sustain. But to begin to figure out how, we’ve got to move beyond the conversation about rescuing The Newspaper, or saving Journalism, and talk specifically about what really matters.

P.S.: My best moment in the session was when Hazel Edney said (by way of responding to my question) there’s something she doesn’t trust about the Internet. There’s something encouraging about paper, she said, about tangible documents that one can hold and preserve, unchanging. She remarked that she fears looking for something on the Internet in ten years and finding it’s no longer there. She went on in this vein for some minutes, until I was prompted to call from my seat, “Print it out!”

P.P.S.: In response to my question, the moderator turned the question back around on me, asking, “What is it you want to save?” I gestured at the people assembled in the room, and said, “This.” I explained that what I feared most was that in this moment when more people than ever before are hungering somehow to engage, to participate, that while we are still sitting around in conference rooms asking how can we save The Newspaper, that energy will dissipate, and die, and everyone will just go back to watching TV.

Posted June 7, 2008 at 6:07 | Comments (4) | Permasnark
File under: Journalism


The distinction between saving journalism and saving the newspaper is applicable to so many fields, e.g., saving scholarship vs. saving journals/academic presses, saving poetry vs. saving poetry presses, saving authorship (as such) vs. saving authorship (in this particular remunerative model), usw.

You can also turn it on its head, asking "what will/should the newspaper be?" by first granting that certain kinds of journalism or cultural activity may find their best expression in some other media form.

Also, it's not a strict content/form question. You can ask, "what is the future for a daily news omnibus primarily in textual form?" without assuming that the material form must be a broadsheet or tabloid. And you can likewise relax the assumptions. Maybe it doesn't need to be a daily. Maybe it doesn't need to be omnibus. Maybe it doesn't need to be professional at all. But the essential thing seems to be to both map the possibilities and to clarify what we mean.

It's going to be somewhere in between - it has to be - because MinnPost has something horrible working against it: its presentation is stupefying, it's terribly terribly boring, and has nothing for the casual reader. Like Minnesota's Prairie Home Companion, I guess you have to be a fan.

Posted by: Latrobe on June 9, 2008 at 07:56 AM

Newspapers may not be a product of a shotgun marriage so much as they are a smorgasbord rather than specialty cuisine. My parallel breaks down when you consider that if only three people want stuffed peppers, you only need to put out three stuff peppers, but the sewing column in a newspaper takes up 16 inches of space in every single newspaper. We just can't afford to be a smorgasbord, kind of like "too many uneaten stuffed peppers" every day.

Sorry to hear MinnPost is stupefying, but why assume all serious investigative reporting has to be stupefying? An investigative report can have all the same elements as a good television crime drama or a thriller like The Andromeda Strain. It's not the material that's stupefying and boring, it's how it's handled. A big knock on modern reporting is that the stylistic adaptations, calm language, and oddly muted or roundabout phrasing we use to convey neutrality, demonstrate objectivity, and show we are fair to "both sides" are the very things that make it stupefying and boring rather than CSI. Modern print journalists could put you to sleep writing about the Normandy invasion or the burning of Joan of Arc. A lot of stories about important things read like they were written by a robot.

That would all go away if investigative/explanatory stuff was written from this perspective: "Here's some things going on that affect you right where you live, and you may want to scream, punch somebody or sell your house and move away when we're done cluing you in." Of course, if you can't write that premise into the top of every investigative story, maybe you are investigating boring things that don't matter.

That last point of your resonates most w/ me, Matt. Seems like we're in a moment of unprecedented interest in media, free speech, & production of content and ideas -- and therefore if you're focused 100% on what you're trying to conserve, instead of what it's now possible to create, you're missing out on the real opportunity (and IMHO the fun).

Curious to know what people think about ProPublica (if you, er, think about it at all).

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