Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Save the Newspapers (Screw Whales)

Newspapers are losing money, and that's a frightening thought that I can honestly say has kept me up at night. When the Tribune media group, owner of the Chicago Tribune and the LA Times, has to file for bankruptcy protection, it's time to get scared. The problem is that there's no really good way to salvage the old system of subscription-buying in this age of the internet. I've heard a government bailout being suggested, but that also frightens the hell out of me, considering government money should not be anywhere near a free press.

If the newspapers die out, we are in big trouble. The biggest of troubles. Do you think CNN will go through your mayor's trash for you? Will Fox News report solid news or the most entertaining? Not enough people care about this and they should. Cable news, local news, network news, blogs...none of these things come close to the level of journalism a newspaper provides. Without our newspapers, we will be a blind and impotent society. That sounds melodramatic, but I couldn't think of a faster way to erode democracy than the death of the newspaper.

So, what I would like to see happen, is for newspapers to start specializing. I realized a short while ago that I don't really rely on one newspaper for 100% of the news, but instead I look to each paper for what they do best. For instance, I'm a much bigger fan of the New York Times columnists than I am of the ones at the Washington Post. When it comes to politics, I look to either the Post, or (much more likely) Politico.com, OR, if I want my news in extra dry form, government executive.com. I never look at the national news at NYT, but I like reading it from the Seattle Times. I can even get more specific news (atheism news, for example) from a blog, as opposed to a newspaper.

My idea is that newspapers cut 90% of their sections and instead, focus on just one. Stop spreading all the money into providing sub-par news and put it all into providing one amazing section. For example, the Washington Post will only cover Washington news, and nothing else (not absolutely nothing else, maybe letters to the editor are necessary in all papers, and I would like to see every paper hire a cartoonist.) This idea will change things in several ways.

1) The news will get better -- That's right. It will not suck anymore. If you buy just one paper, you won't have access to all the sections you normally would, but I don't know a single person that reads every single section of the newspaper. This is doing the readers a favor by eliminating the "junk" that they'll just toss out anyway (looking at you, Food Section).

2) Papers will get smaller -- This means that papers will also become less daunting. One major problem with the state of journalism is that not enough people in my age demographic read them. It's been said (and I invite you to research this yourself if you don't believe me) that not only does my demographic not read enough newspapers, but they probably will never get into that habit if they don't start it soon enough. In a way, this means that the journalism industry must go a-courtin' its target audience, but without dumbing anything down. See this smaller, less intimidating newspaper? You could read this entire thing on the subway and still have time for gameboy.

3) Papers will get cheaper -- This is another way the industry will coax readers back to its folds (ha!). In the age of the internet, it's hard to justify paying even a small amount for what you could easily read online for free. It's hard to get around that, maybe even impossible. The only solid reason I can give for buying a newspaper is that it's just nicer to read something in your hands as opposed to online. That's all. Making the papers cheaper, however, can help this problem, but probably not eliminate it. I'm not a miracle worker, you know.

4) Area will increase -- As one paper closes down its sections to specialize in one, another paper will increase its audience size to compensate. For example, if a paper in Portland doesn't cover politics anymore, a paper in Seattle will have to expand its geographic pool to cover Portland. That means more subscriptions for each individual paper, and THAT means more money for each paper, and THAT means that each paper will get better, and THAT means we won't get duped into another Iraq War.

5)More papers will appear -- If you've been reading along thus far, you've probably wondered what will happen to all the people who work at the newspaper if their sections are cut. I can think of two solutions. Hypothetically, let's say the Seattle Times specializes in national news, the Washington Post specializes in politics, and the New York Times specializes in world news. That means that a lot of people will be out of jobs. The first solution is that the people who worked in politics at the Seattle Times would be transplanted to the now-much-larger politics department at the Post, which can theoretically keep as many employees as it did before. This means that each of the sections will now be three times or three times better, depending on how you choose to look at it.

The second response, and more preferable of the two, is that the sections that used to be a part of a larger paper will go on to form their own papers. If the newspaper industry becomes specialized, papers become smaller, subscription costs decrease, and the area of readership increases the cost of creating a new paper will go down. This means it'll be easier for new papers to appear. It's a recent travesty that so many American cities only have one paper, and even if they have two, there's always one clearly dominant paper (The Tribune versus the Sun-Times, The Seattle Times versus Seattle P-I). Now, we will have several papers in each city, covering different topics. With several papers, there will be different business models. This is a "don't put all your eggs in one basket" strategy. If the newspaper in a city fails today, that city is suddenly without a newspaper. If a newspaper fails in this specialization scenario, its citizens will still get 90% of their news.

6) This will change journalists themselves -- If we continue with the possibility of the Washington Post specializing only in politics, what kind of person would they hire? In today's journalism industry, you hire someone with the most journalism experience, this means both time spent writing for a paper and education in journalism. This also means that your new employee will be forced to fill whatever niche you need filled, regardless of whether or not he or she is knowledgeable in that area. In this new business model, you hire someone with the most time spent writing and the most knowledge about the area your paper specializes in. I can see the ideal candidate for the Washington Post having a BA or BS in journalism, adequate time spent writing, and a MS in politics. (Journalism, being a writing craft, is primarily an art and less of a science, in which case, more schooling is not as beneficial as more practice. This is why a BA in journalism is sufficient.) Because your new employee is more knowledgeable in his or her field, you can be satisfied they will write more intelligent pieces of news. This not only makes the paper better, but will also make the readers better informed and probably raise the pay grade of journalists. Raising the pay grade is an important thing here, as it will help attract the best our society has to offer to the field of journalism.
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