Posted at 10:45 AM on August 13, 2007
by Sanden Totten
The other night I sat in on a discussion about today's media at the Minneapolis Public Library. It was part of the People's University (sign up for free fall classes here) and for the first class we went spelunking the depths of the failing newspaper industry.
Now for those of you who don't know me, I'm in my 20's. The majority of the crowd attending this class was not. Let's just say that they were more "The Wonder Years" than "My So Called Life". And so a large part of the discussion went like this:
"Why do newspapers cover so much garbage these days? It's all Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, and no real news!"
"Well, that's because some editor somewhere thought we should cater to neolithic, barely literate 20 somethings rather than cover the hard hitting news were good at!"
Okay. First off, us 20 something are just as sick of Paris as you are. In fact, I think it's mostly aging journalists trying to come off as hip who are beating that story to death. But more to the point, I don't think people my age are enamored with the garbage newspapers are "targeting" to us either. And as the folks at the discussion pointed out, the numbers bear this out. Young people don't really pick up the paper. And you know what, why should they?
A couple months back the Economist ran a series of articles about the newspaper business. In one, they quoted Brian Tierney, owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, as saying that it's unreasonable to expect everyone from the age of 18 to 88 to buy the same product. And yeah, that makes sense. (He also said that posting a video of someone putting Mentos in a 2 liter bottle of Coke was a good example of how the paper has harnessed the power of the Internet, so take his words with a grain of salt.)
The problem with newspapers isn't really the content. Young people are just as capable as anyone of appreciating hard news and current events when they want to. The problem is that newspapers are boring. I think it's safe to say that newspapers reflect not just a dieing medium, but an outdated mode of understanding.
The idea that we should get our information from an organization that just pushes out content is quickly losing it's appeal. Why would someone use to selecting their own information want to spend their time reading a paper with a very limited range of articles on any given day? Why would someone use to dynamic and creative presentations want to plow through a long column that is mostly just words and an occasional picture? Why would someone use to immediate interactions and collaborative discussions want to write a comment to a paper that will at best just re-print an edited down version of their statement and at worst ignore them all together? And when you do send in a comment, it can take a day or more for it to be re-printed. If someone sends in a response to your comment it could be another two days before you can read that. Not exactly the best pace for a riveting discussion of current affairs.
Let's face it, the newspaper is not cut out to meet the needs of today's media consumer. I'll be the first to admit that the Internet often lacks substance. And some of the best examples of the new way we interact with information (YouTube, craigslist, blog aggregators like Biong Biong and Metafilter) are not always rife with important news. But rather than lamenting the lagging subscription rates, newspapers need to start thinking differently about what it is they do. If they think young folks should be hearing what they have to say, then they should be saying it in ways that are interesting to young people. And I'll give you a hint, that doesn't mean more pictures, dumbed down writing and cheesy pop-cultural references. It's means being creative in how you present information, whether it's through a series of personal blog posts or a serious game.
Let's remember that at one time even newspapers were biased soap-boxes openly espousing the views of the publisher and ignoring stories that contradicted their world view. But newspapers grew up. So will the new media landscape. The writers and editors of today's papers should work to raise the new media landscape into something noble rather trying to revive the tired old body of the past.
But then again, that's just how I see it. Do you disagree? Fire away. What do you think is the problem with today's media?
This is why newspapers are important. If I want to read information and analysis of the situation in the Mid-East and I can choose between either Thomas Friedman or PirrrateGurl77@fruitloops.org, I’m going to have to go with Friedman and if that, at the ripe old age of thirty, makes me old-fashioned so be it.
Let’s say there are three identical stories one of which is in the newspaper, one that is heard on the radio and the other appears on the internet, which source do you trust the most? Which seems the most ‘newsy’ to you? For me, the newspaper article seems far more authentic than the other two. Reading news on the internet still seems a little like gossip to me and the radio, while absolutely great creating the illusion of intimacy between the broadcaster and listener, still doesn’t feel like ‘news’ to me. It feels more like a dialogue, yes, but when being reported facts about a news story I don’t need to feel like I’m having a ‘dialogue.’
You ask, ‘Why would someone use to dynamic and creative presentations want to plow through a long column that is mostly just words an occasional picture?’ Not to be too snide here, but that’s what reading is! It would be like saying, why bother to look at letters that form words which are strung together to form sentences and paragraphs; what’s the point in that? The point is that, buried within those columns of words, is the very foundation needed in creating a view of the world. Yes, it’s not interactive and doesn’t spoon feed information, but, for me, newspapers still provide the most insightful commentary about the world.
I don’t get the argument that newspapers are ‘boring.’ In elementary school, I remember thinking math was boring, and science, too. But sometimes being bored is the price you have to pay to be a better informed person. But right now, with all the talk about narrowcasting, only getting the information and perspectives you agree with is far more dangerous than being bored or having to plow through words. The ability to 'click on' only stories that interest you is a step backward, not forward, if the goal is to be well-rounded individuals. I'd rather know a little about everything than everything about fantasy football.
Don’t get me wrong, newspapers have failed in a lot of ways. The old motto of ‘comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comforted’ has gone out the window. Instead of relying on what newspapers have, an (ever shrinking) group of journalists who have better contacts, superior writing skills and a much better understanding of the concept of fairness as it relates to news than your average ‘citizen journalist’ or blogger, newspapers have gone the other way. Desperation is never attractive and newspapers reek of it right now. But I think that’s much more about the way in which newspapers are run and less about the ability of the ‘dieing medium’ to convey information. And if you really feel that newspapers are an ‘outdated mode of understanding’ then, well, that’s something I wouldn’t brag about.
Thanks for the well thought out (and of course, well written) reply Allan.
I think you may have misunderstood me a bit. When I am talking about the newspaper I am talking about an actual physical object made from trees that is delivered to your doorstep. Not journalism or the practice of reporting as we know it.
I too trust Thomas Friedman but even if every newspaper in the country vanished, Thomas Friedman would still exist and I'm sure he would find other ways to get his ideas out there. Journalists are certainly important, but newspapers are not the only way they can exercise their craft.
And I like your characterization of the various mediums, but I think you are short changing the idea of the Internet. News articles exists on the Internet, many of them exists without being associated with any newspaper and they are still quite reliable. Also, as far as being "newsy", sure newspapers have that style down. But if I want hard facts I'd rather go straight to a source, like checking the exact status of a bill at the government website or finding a study through the organization that did it.
And to your point about being a well rounded individual, I wholly agree. Unfortunately, newspapers never solved that problem. Many people buy a paper and only read the sports section or entertainment news . . . or politics for that matter. The truth is, people who don't want to be challenged are probably not changed anymore by newspapers than by the Internet. But at least for those who want a challenge, the Internet offers infinitely more viewpoints to check out than any one newspaper could (or would ever dare to) print.
And as far as the idea that we should do certain things because they are good for us, even if they are boring, you make a good point. But I think the job of a good writer or journalist is not to tell you what you should learn about, but to make you want to learn about something. Sometimes that means a multi-media presentation, a mediated discussion or a collection of interesting links. Newspapers have only a few tricks when it comes to presenting information, and they are good ones, but the playing field has been expanded way beyond just articles with pictures. Why wouldn't a journalist want to try new approaches?
I haven't had a physical newspaper come to my door since I left my parent's house for college. But that doesn't mean that I get my information about the world from "PirrrateGurl77@fruitloops.org" (although she might have the inside scoop on Kellog's...or Johnny Depp).
I still read the NYTimes and the Star Tribune - but I do so online. And I can check out the BBC and The Washington Post and newspapers and websites written all over the world. With so many free options, it doesn't make sense for me to pay for something that only has its physicality as an asset.
I also don't think the absence of a physical paper or the ability to podcast only the stories that I want to hear will change the information that I take in. If there's an article, I'm not interested in, I don't read it. If there's a story on the radio that is losing me, I'll change the channel.
But this can all change with the way information is presented. In my mind, "boring" is not the same as "good for me." It's like in high school -- one year math can be your least favorite subject, but the next year an awesome teacher makes it the class you can't wait to go to.
And there are reporters who do the same thing. David Kestenbaum on NPR and Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad on RadioLab routinely take dry, scientific studies and reveal how fascinating they can be. There are many other reporters and shows who do the same for economics, international issues and politics, among others.
It's definitely true that there are a lot of unreliable sources of information on the web. But I do think people know when to get their news from the NY Times and when to turn to PirrateGurrl. Check out this study from the Project for Excellence in Journalism. It found that:
"as people gain more familiarity with the Web, they are becoming more educated and more selective about online information. Brand quality transfers to the Web; people sense that the Internet is more than one medium. And the key to the popularity of the major sites may be that they combine the reliability of the old media with the convenience and control of the new."
But then again, I found this online.
But to continue using the Friedman analogy, his choice of medium is newspaper. And maybe I’m wrong, but I imagine that he imagines his reader reading his words in newsprint in the New York Times. Not on the New York Times website or hearing them aloud. Like any great artist (which I, for sure think he is) I would choose to enjoy his writing in the way he intended it. Plays are meant to be heard aloud with an audience, novels read privately, radio listened to and the art of newspapers, to my thinking, should be enjoyed as intended, with the physical product of the efforts of so many. A good daily paper is a work of art from the writing to the layout and I think by just reading it off the internet a lot of the charm is lost.
And I disagree with the idea that newspapers never solved the dilemma of their readers only reading the sections that interest them. They give you the opportunity, literally at your fingertips, to learn about something new. If I read the New York Times cover to cover I will learn something that I never knew prior to having picked up that newspaper. If I look at the New York Times online, I never read as much as I do when I have the actual newspaper in my hand. And this is true of anyone I’ve ever talked to about it.
And, Sanden, I agree with you totally about a good writer wanting to make you read more about a specific topic. But, for me, the internet has made it nearly impossible to find the writers that have that ability. If television was a vast wasteland, then the internet is a kazillion times that. The sheer volume of the internet makes finding good writing very difficult and, thereby, makes me less likely to push myself to learn about new things. Does that make sense? And I’ve never heard a mediated discussion that has turned me on to new things, new ideas, with the possible exception of Charlie Rose, but that’s not really a ‘discussion’ but rather more of an ‘interview.’
And, Molly, I have no doubt that people understand that, ‘Brand quality transfers to the Web.’ But think about how the Web has changed that brand quality. The Star Tribune was a good paper a few years ago, and now is a shadow of its former self. Did the internet do that? Did mismanagement do that? I don’t really know. But what is sure is that the brand quality of the Star Tribune, like many papers, and maybe or maybe not this coincides with the rise of internet readership, is not good. So yeah, brand quality, I’m sure, transfers to the Web.
Later in that quote, ‘…the key to the popularity of the major sites may be that they combine the reliability of the old media with the convenience and control of the new.’ In that quote the implication is that the new media is not reliable and the old media is not convenient. If picking between the two, I guess I’d pick the old media every time.