Everywhere I go, I hear what’s going on,
And the more I hear, the less I know.
Why newspapers are failing is probably not of much interest to their readers. However, to journalists, the subject is understandably of absorbing interest, and they write about it endlessly. They have reason to be nervous, of course, with most newspapers declining in readership, and well-established ones like The Rocky Mountain News stopping publication and others like the San Francisco Chronicle making cuts. Mostly, they blame the Internet, but I have yet to read a journalist who blames the current trends in newspapers for the decline.
By analogy, the Internet and trends such as blogging and citizens’ journalism do not automatically threaten the traditional newspaper. Photography did not mean the end of painting, nor – more to the point – did television completely replace movies or radios.
However, just as television news meant the end of the news reel in theaters, so aspects of the Internet mean that newspapers have to rethink some of their features.
Specifically, in an age where millions of blogs are posted daily, how many are going to pay to read the average columnist? Unless columnists are blazingly original stylists (think maybe Dorothy Parker) or are experts in a particular subject, they are not going to be worth the effort. Yet, although many columnists pride themselves on their styles, very few are among the first ranks of writers, and, if anything, newspaper columnists pride themselves on their lack of expertise – they are writers, they insist, not some sort of hack.
But the truth is, although some columnists love to attack blogging by pointing out the faults of the worst bloggers, I can hardly think of any columnists who are as absorbing as several bloggers I read regularly who have a specialized subject. You might read the average newspaper columnist over breakfast or on coffee break, but if you are interrupted and never finish, you hardly care. In this respect, the average columnist is neither better nor worse than the average blogger, and why should you make special efforts to obtain a few specimens of mediocre writing when you can get thousands online whenever you want?
The same is true of the newspaper stories rewritten from news releases or from the weekend police blotter. When you can often read the original online, who is going to bother with the regurgitations?
Yet columnists without subject matter and rewrites are exactly what newspapers are turning to to find ways to save money. Instead of increasing the diversity of opinions, newspaper chains are reducing it by having more copy distributed by the central office; for instance, when I was looking for reviews of the movie made from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline last month, I could find only two different reviews listed in the major papers in Canada.
Instead of offering more news, newspapers offer long articles under the pretense of doing readers a favor – although, since writing one long story is easier and quicker, and therefore cheaper than writing several short ones, the only people really receiving a favor are the editors and writers. A long story, newspapers hope that readers won’t notice, is not necessarily an in-depth one.
What newspapers can offer that the Internet has trouble matching is investigative reporting. After all, the majority of Internet news sites are portals – collections of links. Portals are cheaper to gather than original stories are to write, so Internet sites are naturally fond of them, since they usually have far smaller budgets than newspapers.
Yet investigative reporting – even correspondents from other parts of the world – is exactly what newspapers are cutting back on in favor of the much cheaper opinion opinions, rewrites, and overly long stories. In the short term, the budget necessities behind such moves are understandable. But, in the long run, such tactics send newspapers into a downward spiral, making them the purveyors of exactly the sort of content that the Internet can provide more plentifully. Is it any wonder, then, that newspapers are faltering?
Instead of concentrating on their strengths, they are trying to match the Internet’s – and that is a game in which newspapers cannot compete. They are like hardcover book publishers trying to match the popular appeal of paperbacks, or painters try to outdo the realism of photographers. Occasionally, they can claim a success, but in the long run, their tactics are against them, and only make their situation more desperate.