Saving Newspapers The Practical Way

When I was a mere pre-blogger, one of my life’s fantasies was to become a journalist. I still remember my first published article, written when I was a high school freshman. I did a story on teenage mothers who were finishing school while caring for their babies. They were doing this in what was my former elementary school, previously closed due to budget cuts.

I still remember how weird that felt, talking to girls my age who were learning algebra and how to raise babies in the place I learned to read.

Time went on and I became co-editor of my school paper, together with one my best friends. Around then, I realized that, to be honest, I was more of an opinion columnist than journalist. Sometimes facts get in the way of the story. This might be why I also write fiction. But I’ve always loved newspapers, more for what they represent than what they are.

I find it sad that the very people who should be on top of current events didn’t see the decline of the newspaper coming. I trace the tipping point to the point where Silicon Valley discovered Craigslist. To me, that’s when it all changed, when the business model was shown to be without legs. That was the moment, in my mind, the newspaper business should have said, “We have seen the future, and it is now!”

Then they should have raced to catch up and modernize and change.

Of course they didn’t. I’d be writing something different if that had happened. I wouldn’t be both nodding my head at the wisdom of Sam Zell selling the iconic Los Angeles Times building and lamenting the fact that we could have had the Southern California equivalent of the Google/Yahoo/whatever campuses. Was it because the revolution wasn’t published on newsprint?

To my mind, the fatal flaw of the newspaper business — other than failing to recognize the sea change that was Craigslist(1) (2) — was to assume that the web was a place to reproduce the look and feel of the print newspaper. I mean, what were they thinking? Wire stories — Reuters, Associated Press — are reproduced everywhere. Newspapers, by definition or new definition, had to return to their roots to succeed.

I almost titled this post “Why I Check Salon.com” five times a day because, well, I check Salon.com five times a day. They’re doing what the Los Angeles Times coulda, shoulda done: featuring great, insightful, often controversial, sometimes sloppy stories. Each time I visit the home page, there’s something new that isn’t same something new I can find on an aggregator of headlines. I am currently madly in love with Andrew Leonard’s “How The World Works” blog on Salon because, finally, someone is putting the economic perspective into social context in a way that makes me, average American citizen, understand.

I mean I get that every month the various economic indicators are always different than economists predicted (which makes me wonder if economists should be allowed to predict), but I never really understand what that means. Also the price of oil. And so many other things.

So while the Los Angeles Times tries to reproduce a newspaper on its website, though with less useful search than your average microfiche machine, the new newspapers are actually thinking about the future. It is one notion to think that publications like the LAT should be “news” papers, that is, publications that aggregate new stories. Your classic inverted pyramid piece with a catchy 35-word lead (3).

I’m talking about newspapers that focus on information and explanation. And I’m talking about newspapers that focus on opinion and analysis. From the LAT home page, I tried to get to its revamped, upgraded, needs-to-be read book blog. Hard to do, and it’s what I’m looking for.

The home page is a mess, and it’s not alone (also, the site doesn’t remember me; Salon remembers me, Yahoo remembers me, Google remembers me, Slate remembers me, even the New York Times remembers me, which is great because because I forgot my password years ago; my hometown paper thinks I’m a complete stranger).

News is important, but news is of tiered value. There is the coverage of the latest Barack Obama speech. You can have 20 reporters on the ground, but their stories are only of value if there is appropriate context and analysis (sadly missing in today’s journalism). Otherwise, it’s just the facts with assorted sound bites. When did “news” become with reprinting press releases and copying interviews verbatim and taking press secretary quotes at face value — you want to look to failure, look to the lack of critical thinking. Why should we exhibit loyalty to publications that don’t do their jobs?

The newspaper of the future (the future that started in approximately 1994) is more than news. The newspaper of the future, if the existing publications can even hope to succeed, combines the strength of traditional papers — strong local coverage with good analysis of national and international news with smart, sometimes provocative, populist and elitist opinions with community.

This is news where reporters can come away with a grasp of the fact but also the necessary reflection that happens when you put the news in context of society — like realizing your former elementary school is now a campus for teenage mothers…including girls you’ve known since kindergarten.

(1) – Also all that ridiculous registration stuff. What were you thinking and what were you hoping to accomplish?

(2) – And the stupid pop-under ads that publications like the New York Post and Washington Post insist upon. Sorry guys, I don’t go to sites that do things that ultimately degrade my system’s performance.

(3) – Your leads might vary.

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