Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Stopped: The Presses

175 Stopped the Presses

Newspaper circulation has been in a death spiral for the last 15 or 20 years.

They blame competition from the internet and cable news channels. And they’re partly right.

But there are two other reasons – reasons they never get around to mentioning.

1. People can’t or don’t want to read.

2. Most papers are awful.

USA Today revolutionized papers when it first came out in the 1980s. It was pretty, it had color pictures and the stories were short enough to engage the then-beginning MTV generation which wants everything fast. It used charts to summarize stories it thought might be too complex for the D average reader. And it influenced every other paper in America, if not the world.

Former CBS News President Fred W. Friendly called it a TV show you can wrap fish in. Accurate then, accurate now.

But the graphics revolution was on, and even the New York Times – as staid as it gets – has color pictures in its pages, and a Sunday magazine that suddenly no longer looks like it was designed before World War I.

The above-it-all trade paper, The Wall Street Journal is about to undergo an upheaval of format unprecedented in its long history. It’s going to shrink the size of its pages.

But pretty as they are, many papers don’t have much in them. They are incomplete. They are badly written. They are badly edited. They have no soul.

Part of the reason is they’ve learned from broadcasters, particularly radio. Radio stations are a commodity nowadays. Like pork bellies and gasoline. They’re homogenized, and their owners, no longer needing to serve community needs, can concentrate on the bottom line at the expense of the listener and the advertiser.

Newspapers, especially the big chains are falling into the same trap, which is no surprise. What IS surprising is that they hadn’t done it decades ago. Newspapers, after all, are unregulated. There’s no FCC looking over their shoulders. There’s no license to renew. There are few, if any, restrictions on how many papers an owner can have in one city.

Knight-Ridder recently died because the diluted family gene pool running it failed to acknowledge the ink in its veins and instead listened to stockholders and investment bankers.

The New York Times is under fire from stockholders who don’t like that there are two classes of stock, one of which can’t vote. Like, who put guns to their heads and told them to buy Times stock in the first place. The current generation of family controllers there also have not paid attention to the ink in their veins.

Recently, staffers at Newsday on New York’s Long Island wrote a protest letter about staff cuts to its parent, the Tribune Co. of Chicago which got the paper when it bought the Los Angeles Times and its subsidiaries from the Chandler family, which may now regret the sale, even though it made them even richer than they were before.

That’s kind of like a student strike. Ultimately, campus security and the local cops will come and break up the occupation of the administration building.

Newsday is wounded, but not by a lack of staff. It had this little problem about fudging its circulation figures. Most every paper does that, despite the myopically watchful eye of the Audit Bureau of Circulation (also known as the locking-the-barn-door department.)

The Moote Pointe Pennsylvania Daily Gazette is a tool of the state university that controls much of what goes on in town.

The Miami Herald is so busy fighting Castro and putting out regional editions about bake sales and salsa parties that it’s lost its journalistic compass.

The Washington Post after Kate Graham is nothing but a local paper with some friends in high places and too many subsidiaries.

The Boston Globe is for sale. The NYT is the owner. It bought the thing and then realized it didn’t know baked beans about Boston. And it shows.

The world has changed. Now, it’s Rupert Murdoch is the only guy making a buck. And you don’t hear HIM complaining about cable channels and internet companies. Instead of yowling and playing the victim, he went out and started competing broadcasters.

That’s a long way from when his New York Post had to scrape together the day’s coins to buy newsprint.

As for the declining inability or unwillingness to read: don’t brutalize the kids. You’ll bruise their self esteem. There’ll always be some geek around who can read the menu to them.

I'm Wes Richards, my opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

(c) 2006 WJR

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