So, here is something that bugs me.
The other day on TV I see two businessmen talking. One businessman says he wants to buy a small handful of Canadian newspapers. The other businessman says he thinks that’s crazy, newspapers are dinosaurs, newspapers are dead, the Internet’s killed them. The first businessman’s rejoinder to this is that he’s not afraid to take risks, and he’s got people on board who know how to run newspapers, he thinks they can prosper despite the Internet. The second businessman says, well, he still thinks newspapers are a risky business. And now here’s the kicker.
The presumption seems to be, that these guys have some kind of insight into what is going on with the newspaper business. But you have to wonder…
…Have they ever in their lives read a good one?
Risk. They think it’s about risk. But what, after all, is so risky about words printed on paper? People will read anything that’s put in front of them, and that’s the problem right there. It isn’t that people have just gone “off” papers, in favour of computer screens and cell phones. It isn’t that people have just gotten so efficiency-savvy that they’ve dumped the whole concept of sitting down and reading the paper entirely. This isn’t Megatrends 2010, and it ain’t Wired magazine circa 1995 either. There’s a key to this. The problem isn’t some new development in how people are predisposed to get their reading done. The problem isn’t even that there are so many more ways of getting material to read, that people are torn between the clock and the wordcounts to the point where they have to choose between their options. The problem is, that when all options are about equally bad, choice becomes something not worth thinking about.
And that’s what’s really killing newspapers: that they suck.
In my country, all the papers are simply godawful, have been simply godawful for years. Throw a dart at the United States on a map and you’ll hit a city (or a town!) that’s got (and probably has already lost) a better paper than any of ours have ever been; papers with more talented writers, more experienced editors, and yet what becomes of them? They go down under the water. The writers and editors bob to the surface, jobless.
And Canada’s newspapers don’t change.
Ours aren’t folding like yours are, you see. But in a way they’re doing something more shocking: they’re not adapting at all, not even to the point of folding. They’re still pursuing readers in the same race-to-the-bottom way they have for about thirty or forty years, even as the bottom drops out and goes elsewhere. Out there right now, looking for work, and available for bargain-basement rates, are some of the best newspaper people on the continent, far better than most of the clowns we’ve got stirring the cement up here…
And the sad truth is, even they aren’t that good.
Here’s Michael Kinsley on the subject…and you can see it right away, can’t you? Instantly you can see it: newspapers bore people because they are written to do so. The presumption that newspapers have been supplying a goshdarn terrific product for ages, but people just don’t seem to like it, so why would we pay top dollar to make it better still if we already know “better” isn’t popular enough…this presumption is false. The idea that people can’t recognize or aren’t drawn to good writing is baseless. Well of course it is, because what is good writing but that which makes you interested in reading more of it…?
I read Book Review sections in Canadian newspapers; you should read some of these, they’re fun, often you can come away without a single idea in your head about what any of the books dithered on about therein are about, even more often you find yourself coming away from those reviews unsure about whether or not the reviewer liked the book or would recommend the book. This isn’t even getting into movie reviews, TV reviews, music reviews, lifestyle columnists, op-ed pieces…I mean, I don’t want to be cruel, you know? But book reviews are basic, at least for writers they damn well ought to be; so that those are being bled dry of readability should shock us…at least, it should if we take our time machines back to the Eighties or whatever so we can see it start to happen. Nowadays, naturally, it’s just a big Ehh — people don’t even really expect to encounter lucid prose in a newspaper book review anymore, do they? Does anyone still expect that, is that something anyone still expects? Nowadays if everything I’m being offered is written on about the same level and in about the same manner as Yahoo News tidbits on my email, I don’t see any special need to seek out that crap writing and crap concentration anywhere, it isn’t that I prefer not to read newspapers it’s that I don’t owe anybody anything for what they once provided but don’t anymore, and haven’t for years.
The newspapers of the United States, that outshine Canada’s newspapers…the sad likelihood is, that it is mainly by comparison with Canadian newspapers that they shine. And the gruesome lesson there is that Canadian newspapers don’t even care to be that good, as good as the Post-Intelligencer (RIP), as good as the Examiner (vale, immortal Examiner), as good as the New York Times which is not that good…though it may have some good qualities…because if they were, wouldn’t they be being just a little bit brutal about their quality control, now that the pool of available people who know their oysters is much deeper, and broader, and cheaper to fish in? I actually read a lot of stories online that come from print publications, and usually I can count myself lucky to find anything even slightly chewy, because most of it is pointless filler and most of what isn’t filler is no damn good. This is why I’m eschewing newspapers for the Internet, because I have to hunt for good stuff, you know?
The two businessmen joust about the future of newspapers. Truthfully, that any stock can be put in their speculations is a measure of how far standards have fallen. They’re not writers, these guys. Much less are they editors. In a word, though a slightly outdated word, they’re not newspapermen. So what has to happen, for their ideas about the future of newspapers to be worth a damn?
The content of newspapers has to be simplified, is what has to happen. Turned into section headings and trend-chasing design imperatives, made fungible, commodifiable, summarizable.
And it should surprise no one that this is just what has happened. The story of the Great American Newspaper (or Canadian newspaper, or English newspaper, or French or Russian or Italian newspaper) is the story of the Great American Editor, and as the Editor goes, so goes the nation. Writers are trained by editors, brought along, trimmed back, raised up…sent to market. Writers are the golden wheat, the glorious fruit; but editors are the sowers and the reapers of it, the farmers labouring in the fields to make sure it thrives.
And, what’s the farm itself?
Well, the farm is education. Because writing is not the only talent; and writers are not the only crop that editors give their sweat to raise up. Any good editor is probably worth ten writers in terms of rarity, in terms of necessity: the eye, the quick thought, sensitivity, decisiveness, taste and smarts. Editors are good teachers because they are good students — writers can’t often touch them for either of these virtues. And yet all that virtue is being educated out of our editors…has been being educated out for some time…
And that’s why newspapers are failing, and why the two businessmen get to talk in easy terms about the why of it. Newspapers are failing because they’re not good enough to survive. And I know that sounds harsh. But there’s a silver lining to this cloud, which is:
Newspapers can be as good as they want to be. When Mordecai Richler was a columnist for the National Post, and Carol Lay’s comics were featured on page five, I read that shit every single day. I sought it out. I believed in it, and I boosted it. You have to understand, too, that I hated its publisher, hated him like poison…and I still sought it out, and talked it up.
So…how hard is it, really?
And I’ll tell you, you could be excused for thinking to yourself “what the hell does this guy know, who the hell is he to pontificate on the newspaper business?” It’s a fair question. I’ll answer it.
I’m a guy who knows just as much about it as the two businessmen on TV.
And so what’re you keeping so mum about, if you know more than me?
Especially when that means you know more than them, too. Because they don’t even consider that newspapers could be “better”: better-written, and better-edited. Seriously, as long as they talked, the topic never even came up. And why should it? This isn’t their area of expertise; they don’t know a thing about it. I had a roommate once who read about fifty newspapers a day — he told me the best papers in the world are African papers that are published exclusively online…because it’s easier to flee death squads with a laptop under your arm than with a printing press strapped to your back, you see? Now you look at your local paper over coffee, and ask yourself if any death squads would ever come for any of them, even if they were in Africa…and I think you’ll see that it’d never happen. Well, not that we would want it to…and not that we should expect that much, from our newspapers, anyway…
But oh, just to be able to care about it, just a little! To be able to care about any part of it! Just for a really good sports page, a good comics section, an intelligent editorial, an informative or intriguing book review, a lifestyle column with the slightest bit of wit, political news with just a hint of some real perspective, some sign that somebody somewhere for the love of God is so much as being underpaid…! I don’t need anyone to go out of windows with laptops in the dead of night, I just need to look around the newspaper stand and not think to myself “Christ, it’s like there’s a million places to get a drink here, but they’re all T.G.I.Fridays, CAN A GUY GET ONE! LOUSY! REAL! HUMAN! BAR IN THIS TOWN, OR WHAT?”
Or might as well call Dial-A-Bottle, and drink at home.
If you think about it a little bit, I believe you may come to believe it’s a fairly apt metaphor.
But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Because as a cursory inspection of this rant will show…I could use an editor myself.
But then WE ALL COULD USE THAT.