I grew up in one those towns with a tiny little newspaper, The Lompoc Record, where Scott Ostler, before he was the Scott Ostler, commented on my athletic talent, saying “I buttressed the defense”. As it was likely I was sitting the bench — as I did throughout my softball career — I have to say that was as an accurate a statement as any made by a sports journalist. For big city perspective on the news, we also subscribed, on Sundays, to the Santa Barbara News Press.
Trust me, when you grow in Lompoc, Santa Barbara seems like a teeming metropolis.
Throughout my life, I have been a faithful newspaper subscriber. Note that word: subscriber. Over the past ten years, our household recycled more unread paper copies of the Los Angeles Times than read copies. It wasn’t that news suddenly became less important, it was the actual printed version of the paper that became, well, stale. Even though we stopped received the print edition some time ago, we continue to subscribe to the Kindle edition.
Thanks to a mix of the Internet and radio, the “news” — current events and breaking stories — was historical information by the time we fished the paper out from under our cars. While the LAT excelled at well-reported news features, I often found myself clicking through from this website or another to read on the LAT website. In other words, it was a network of curators who drove me to the LAT website. I rarely visited that site unprovoked; it was and is the least user friendly entity on the planet. This is after all the website that, when I entered the exact headline of an article as a search term, returned wacky results.
The website remains a relic of someone’s vision and expensive content management system. It is the antithesis of what a newspaper should be. Which, I guess makes it classic evidence of why newspapers are failing without wide-scale public outcry.
It was 1995 when Craigslist entered our public consciousness. This unassuming, my-first-ever-website-design site landed a serious blow on the collective newspaper industry. 1995. So when someone takes on your business directly (in this case, classifieds), what do you do? Oh right, futz around with stupid stuff like making people register to view content rather than forging a place in a rapidly changing news environment. If, in 1995, you still thought the printed newspaper was the future, you should have been fired. On the spot.
Since then, we have seen our opportunities to discover news and analysis expand. We don’t need newspapers to figure out which way the wind blows (with apologies to those who do not have Internet access; let us not forget that we are still in a transitional period). Sports news is known and dissected before the first edition is put to bed. “Dear Abby”? Do people really pay money for advice columns these days?
Newspapers, who had the advantage of prime talent, failed to do one thing. They failed to establish themselves as leaders in the new news media. They allowed bloggers to poach their territory, ferreting out stories (a la the Talking Points Memo coverage of the US Attorney firing scandal) and leading conversation and opinion. The 2008 election played out on the Internet, and newspapers were chasing the story, not leading it.
There was some weird pride about solid reporting and editorial oversight, and, as virtues, those are excellent. But those virtues need to be offset with what I can only imagine the papers perceived as vices: strong community, reader feedback (the fact that comments were heralded as innovative…), a focus on local.
What is news anyway? When I see four firetrucks in my neighborhood — and I can reasonable ascertain they’re not on a lunch break — I want to know what happened. I need someone local to give me the scoop on my ‘hood (I need someone to explain how my ‘hood became home to a hip hookah bar). I need to know. For what it’s worth, I got my answer from Yelp, not a newspaper.
Newspapers — or rather the people who lead them — allowed themselves to become irrelevant. I’m not sure what they expected. I’m not sure what the people who make the big decisions were thinking. Where were the bright minds who could have guided these titans to prosperity in the new media environment? Oh, they’re there at these papers, but I think their voices are unheard (hint: when your bloggers have to go through extensive editorial review while others are scooping the story, priorities are not straight; it’s one thing to get the facts straight, it’s another to be late to the party).
I have great optimism for the future of news reporting, because I see people who might not be seen as “real” journalists performing this role. I see thought leaders emerging to replace columnists of yore. I see persuasive voices arguing their points intelligently and eloquently. These are the people with the vision to see a new model, a new way of creating “newspapers”. They understand that it’s about leveraging strengths, not running the world.
The giants, the conglomerates, the dinosaurs all failed to meet the greatest challenge of their professional careers. Maybe newspapers shouldn’t be run by debt-ridden corporations. Maybe they shouldn’t be multi-national. Maybe they shouldn’t be identified by the size of their buildings. Maybe they should bow out gracefully and let the business of news begin anew.
- Politco and Reuters Forge News-Distribution Alliance – This is the kind of thing we’re talking about.