Friday, March 21, 2008

News--More, Paper--Less

In all my syllabi for my four English courses, I demand that students read at least one daily newspaper every day. I make this reading part of the class—I discuss it, refer to specific articles, and assign writing on current events. The problem is that the students do not read the entire physical newspaper; they read selections from the online version. The upside to all of this is that they often read multiple newspapers every day, or at least portions of multiple papers.

I have been deeply disturbed by the collapse of the newspaper just in the last few months. Depending to whom one speaks, newspapers are somewhere between irrelevant and dead. I cannot accept this. To protest, I still subscribe to two dailies, and even though one, the Los Angeles Times, has fallen in quality, I refuse to cancel my subscription. Whenever possible, I also purchase the Los Angeles Daily News, USA Today, and several New York tabloids. The newspaper is not dead, damn it!

But when talking with my students about their online surfing of the major metropolitan newspapers, I could not help but draw the conclusion that the newspaper is simply being transfigured. The news is still vital; the paper part is the irrelevancy. Therefore, I believe newspapers will survive online. That is the direction the tide is moving, and we need to embrace it.

David Simon, creator and head writer for the HBO television series, The Wire, spent much of the fifth and final season of his show writing about a fictionalized Baltimore Sun, in reality, the newspaper of H.L. Mencken, the most famous journalist of the early twentieth century. In the world of his show, the paper is suffering round after round of buyouts and layoffs. Veteran reporters are let go, and youngsters who replace them lack the credibility to report the news. In fact one spends the ten episodes fabricating a major story and making up quotes only to receive a Pulitzer in the finale. All of this occurs against the backdrop of a failing infrastructure and collapse of a major metropolitan city: Baltimore, Maryland—fictionalized, but closer to truth than fiction.

In recent interviews, Simon spoke about how the reporters and editors at the fictional paper lost touch with their community. The paper was no longer relevant. Every major story over the years on the show—from the drug trade to port smuggling and corruption to failing schools—was overlooked by the paper. Simon’s argument is clear: unless newspapers find a way to become relevant to the communities they serve, their fortunes will continue to fall. And they cannot be relevant with fewer reporters and editors. They cannot “do more with less.”

The other night, I was out walking my dog and found a street two blocks from my home blocked off with police tape and armed men. Two large vehicles were parked nearby labeled “Bomb Squad.” Down the street, squatting by itself alone, was a car with its lights on and motor running. No one was in it. All the police on scene were respectfully giving the vehicle plenty of room. “What’s up,” I asked one of the cops.

“We have a suspicious vehicle,” he replied.

The police helicopter circled overhead. The radios crackled. After a while, the tape was taken down, the car was towed away, the neighborhood went back to evening quiet. The next morning, I could find no information about the “incident” anywhere.

I want to know what is happening a world away and I want to know what is happening down my block. I want to know, and so do many others. Journalism is not dead. We need the same information, the same reporting and thoughtful analysis.

So how can newspapers remain relevant with a gutted masthead and a dead delivery system?

A community needs reporters—writers must hit the streets and city council meetings and report back. If, like both the Los Angeles Times and the Daily News, the ownership keeps cutting personnel in round after round of belt-tightening, who will be left to report the news, in whatever form?

As for the traditional delivery vehicle, newspapers need to stop being paper. The daily newspaper, or update, or bulletin, whatever you call it, will be delivered not at your doorstep, but on your computer. This is already the case, but what will happen in the future is that more of us will jump on the bandwagon and read it on our desktops and laptops and other devices.

Advertising? Yes, well we already know that advertising is completely integrated into the web. The newspapers will sell ads in the online addition, like they do now in print. Capitalism always makes the transition.

Editorial content? Here is where it becomes fun. Newspapers will not be relegated to print and still photos. Check out the major U.S. papers online today. They have libraries of still images, video clips, interactive sidebars, graphs, statistics, galleries, catalogues, and archives. Online readers get it all, full access to not only today’s issue, but all editions for the history of the publication.

So staffing needs to be increased, not cut. To provide the service, we need reporters, photographers, editors, technicians, and programmers. We need more people to gather the news, not less. We must find a way to solidify the economics online and re-staff the newsroom. The model must succeed financially online where it could not as a newspaper.

This also makes sense editorially; as reporters and readers dialogue, comments and questions can be integrated into stories—the great discussion, the essence of democracy. Stories can be updated, added to, revised with new information at a moment’s notice. No need to wait for tomorrow’s edition as we must do with newspapers.

The newspaper has been a valuable conduit of information for hundreds of years. It is remarkable how long it has remained the gold standard for communicating the news. Even after television came, we clung to that wad of tree fiber hitting our front walkway each and every morning. I love the newspaper—I used to deliver it as an adolescent. But it is gone, or will be soon. Newspapers are dead, long live the newspapers.

So let’s crank up those newsrooms. Let’s get the reporters back out on the streets of the world, here and abroad. Let’s kneel at the altar of saints Woodward and Bernstein. Let’s fold print journalism into the other forms and make it all one entity. It will never be a profit-generator because journalism is, at heart, a public service. We need to recognize its continuing necessity to a democracy and focus on its true nature: to communicate, analyze, and comment upon what is happening in our world.

This morning, I turned on my computer, and worked my way through the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, The New York Post. I read some blogs. I glanced at MSNBC and CNN. I also checked the Drudge Report, L.A. Observed, and the Huffington Post. Yeah, I also read the printed newspapers—the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, but I do not know how much longer I will keep my subscriptions.

This is the new world, the paradigm shift. There is nothing like the smell of ink and paper, but things change and a new day dawns. It is the age of digital enlightenment, of gigabytes and flat screens, downloads and instant delivery. Journalism is alive and well, as vital as ever. Only the format has changed.

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