I’ve been picking on newspapers for a while, for much longer than I have been a blogger. To me the decline became apparent in the eighties and nineties when the big corporations started snapping newspapers up and the focus of newspapers drifted away from news and moved toward profits. Newspapers, at their best, are a very personal enterprise. Corporations, especially ones that are big enough to buy a slew of newspapers, know nothing about passion. Still, for a long time they only had television to compete with. TV is just as bland and corporate as newspapers are. It took the Internet, and passionate individuals, to dig the grave for newspapers.
A Lack of Interest
I haven’t subscribed to a newspaper since the early nineties. I occasionally buy the local paper, but it is usually because I want the car or the grocery ads or because I have some time to kill in a restaurant. I certainly don’t buy the local paper looking for a great reading experience. Every newspaper runs the same canned stories off of the news wire. Their local coverage consists of mostly basic police/court coverage, business stories, road construction updates and reasonably good coverage of the sports scene. None of these are things I can’t do without. More importantly, I can find any of it on online if I bother to look. For the record, I also don’t watch the news, local or national, on television. Television “news” is all about blood, pundits and car chases. I don’t need it.
New News Sources
I am far from uninformed. I read the news just about every day, spending at least ten minutes and as much as an hour scanning headlines and reading anything that seems interesting. I do almost all of my reading online. Google News is my primary source, but I also subscribe to feeds from a number of specific publications and many blogs. I would subscribe to my local papers’ news feeds, if they had them. Unfortunately. the two daily papers don’t seem to have much interest in allowing people to read their articles without being subjected to their ad-filled web sites. I don’t really blame them, but I don’t miss them either.
A Very Long Decline
Print journalism is in the middle stages of what I expect will be a very long decline. Newspaper readership has been dropping for many years now, but over the past couple years that drop has been accelerating. There is no reason to expect this drop to end any time soon. Sadder yet, newspapers are having trouble online as well. People aren’t just leaving their print version behind, they are leaving their online versions behind too. I am sure this is because of the focus on wire feeds and canned news. You can get that kind of news anywhere. In fact, you have to make a deliberate effort if you want to avoid it.
An Outdated Model
The biggest problem is the lack of real journalism. For years now, newspapers have been getting by on wire feeds from AP, Reuters and a variety of smaller news services. Back before the Internet, this model worked because a person in Tucson wouldn’t have access to a newspaper in San Antonio, so it didn’t matter if they ran the exact same stories. Now, however, all that duplicate national and international coverage can be accessed by anyone anywhere. Why read your local paper’s limited international section when you can access the news from anywhere in the world through the web. With Google News and other news aggregators, it is just as easy to find out the news in England from England as it is from your local paper. As for that AP article, it is repeated so endlessly online that you are bound to catch it too, if you bother to look.
Raw VS. Canned and Bland
Print journalists endlessly deride bloggers, and some of their criticisms are valid. Many, though by no means all, bloggers have less news experience and greater political and personal bias than newspaper reporters do. They make up for those shortcomings, however, by being more timely, more passionate, and more detailed in their coverage. The world of journalistic blogging (there are many blogs that have nothing to do with the news) is uneven, but when it is good, it is far better than the canned, bland news stories that the newspapers reprint. Because there are so many sources to choose from, it is easy to decide for yourself what is good and what is worth reading.
Decline and Rebirth
Newspapers are going to continue to decline in readership and relevance as long as they continue to follow the old model of wire stories and short, uninteresting local articles. The only reason to pick up a newspaper (or visit a newspaper’s website) in Fresno is to find out what happened in Fresno. Only newspapers that invest heavily in local coverage and allow their writers to spend more than 300 words on an article will be relevant as the years pass. That probably won’t happen until the giant corporations that own most newspapers lose interest in these now unprofitable entities and move on to other media. It is difficult to image any conglomeration of newspapers embracing individual voices and local reporting. Once it becomes unprofitable enough, however, I predict that as newspapers begin to fold and be sold, passionate local people will return to print. Until then, I’ll continue to get my news online.