Thursday, 25 September 2008

The Press

John Yardley on the newspaper of the future


The Washington Post’s book critic has a plan.


Below, my reactions...


I’ve put my comments down here because Yardley’s piece deserves to be read in its entirety. (So if you haven’t already done so, go do it!)

Executive summary?  He’s right on some points, wrong on others, iffy on a few, and he missed a couple of big ones.  In other words, a good jumping-off point for discussion.

Want specifics?  Okay.

First an attaboy:  A point so obvious that it seems self-evident, yet I’ve not seen it anywhere else:  Newspapers should concentrate on retaining their core audience

...people within its reach who still want to read the news—read it, that is, not pick it up in quick online hits or hear it in bits and pieces on television or radio—and who want to read it on paper.
And what do readers want?
Instead of dumbing down—making stories shorter and snappier, assuming that readers have the intellectual curiosity of couch potatoes—[newpapers should] smarten up. ...Give readers meatier articles, analyses, and opinion pieces...
Hallelujah! At last somebody gets it: While newspapers pursued the USA Today paradigm (with pictures, graphics, lots of white space, larger type sizes, and shorter stories) their readers wanted something else.[1]  In fact (he doesn’t say this, but I will): Newspapers’ efforts to attract and keep the non-readers have played a role in chasing the readers away.

Now comes the miss:  Nowhere does Yardley address the elephant in the room, the politicization of the news coverage.  I’ve ranted about this issue before[2] and won’t repeat myself here, except to note that the 50% of the country who don’t share your positions notice it, resent it, and avoid papers  containing it.  If newspapers had worked half as hard at maintaining the “wall between news and editorial” as they have the one between “news” and “business”... well, they’d still be in trouble, but perhaps not so much![3]

He also misses the fact that newspapers have thrown away their principal advantage, their monopoly lock on local news coverage.  I can find out what’s going on in Washington anywhere- multiple television networks, several national newspapers, an infinity of bloggers.  But where do I go to get the goods on my city council?  “Local” radio?  (Don’t make me laugh.) Television?  (Hey, they only report it if it’s been in the newspaper!)  But instead of capitalizing on their unique advantage, newspapers bought out and laid off their experienced reporters (substituting green J-school grads with no local knowledge) and filled the resulting empty space with syndicated and wire copy. All in the name of cost-cutting.

Another bullseye:
A newspaper is an entity, an entirety.  If a newspaper were edited for me it would have more reviews, commentary, and analysis, and fewer (if any) comics, horoscopes, and commodities reports.  But a newspaper is not edited for me. Or, more accurately, it’s edited for me and for the person who wants more comics, horoscopes, and commodities reports and fewer (if any) reviews, commentary, and analysis.
...which also means: Pay attention to what readers want, not just what you can “sell.”
The thinking goes, as best I can understand it, that since book sections (or opinion sections, or editorial pages, or sports sections) don’t attract enough money to “pay for themselves,” they must not have many readers, so they can be eliminated without upsetting anybody except the people who lose their jobs and the authors and publishers who get free critical attention.
This is so wrong as to be laughable, yet it’s happened again and again.  But a newspaper is the sum of its parts.  Take away enough, and it becomes a bundle of advertisements.  And each time a section disappears, there are readers who will decide that it’s no longer worth the bother.

The iffy: Yardley believes newspapers should become more magazine-like: Tabloid rather than broadsheet, a “softer” front page with fewer hard news stories and a layout “more like, say, The New York Review of Books”(!) Dunno about that.  Magazines have their own problems, and IMO a fluffy front page is a bug, not a feature. (I want news, dammit!)  And for whatever reason tabloids, even when printed on the same presses as broadsheets, often look dingy to me. 

Then there’s this:
The word “elite” is much out of fashion these days, but an elite newspaper is just what this one would be: written and edited for people who are educated, politically and culturally engaged, probably with higher than average earned and disposable income.  They will be smaller in numbers than those who read newspapers now, and probably a bit older than average, but for certain kinds of advertisers they will be a more attractive target audience.  Just as advertising on cable television and the Internet is ever more narrowly targeted, so should be advertising in print newspapers.
Okay.  Just be careful not to confuse “elite” with “liberal” (see above).  And don’t forget that there are readers in all social strata. 

As to advertising, Yardley tells a story about a District of Columbia wine shop[4] that skirts a sore point with me:  For too long, newspapers have been unfriendly to small advertisers, perhaps because they require a higher level of service, or maybe just because they (individually) don’t spend big bucks.  But it’s foolish.  Because while brushing away the small fry might have made sense thirty years ago – when papers could count on selling three or four full pages each day to the department stores – nowadays the department stores are buying television.  Yet advertising rates still skew toward the (non-existant) multiple-full-page contract buyer, even as design and layout have become more automated, and tiny businesses now deliver press-ready PDFs.  Is a rethink in order?
Could this advertiser be lured back if the Post’s circulation shrank to, say, 350,000 and ad rates were reduced accordingly?
And with reduced ad rates, how many others, presently non-advertisers, could be lured?

In summary, I feel that Yardley is more right than wrong, and that his ideas are excellent thinking outside of the box that newspapers seem to have nailed themselves into.

It’s too bad he’s only the book reviewer, and not the chairman of the board.


HT:  Anonymous commenter at Gannett Blog.

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[1] In fact, readers tend to scorn the too-large picture or irrelevant graphic: “I wonder how many words were thrown away so they could print that,” they grumble.

[2] Here, for instance.

[3] And no, I’m not saying that the paper has to be “slanted right.” (We righties will put up with a lot of guff on the editorial page – although we may mock it mercilessly – provided it doesn’t leak into the rest of the paper.)  But I am saying that reporters must be seen to make an effort to balance their reporting, and that just because you quoted a Democrat and a socialist doesn’t mean you’ve achieved it.

[4] which I won’t blockquote. Go read it!

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