And Make A Bonfire Of All Your Newspapers

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.

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12 responses to “And Make A Bonfire Of All Your Newspapers

  1. OKAY. Today I discovered precisely how print and online newspapers differ. The difference is: what draws my eye won’t necessarily draw my finger.

    Oh God so sleepy…more in a minute…

  2. One of the things about print newspapers is that they’re between audiences at the moment.

    There are writers, editors, etc. out there who legitimately *want* to try new things, to provide that sense of “There is something in this paper you will not get anywhere else.” The fear of change doesn’t come from journalists’ old fashioned Perry White sentimentality for The Way It’s Always Been Done, but because print newspapers are trying to hang on to the aging readership that still accounts for a great deal of revenue. The kind who still remember when papers were big enough and thick enough that they could carry every single baseball box score and run long national news pieces and the like.

    But of course, papers are shrinking, both in page count and dimensions, so there isn’t room for all that. So it becomes a matter of, those things that you want to care about, those “flourishes” that could make a paper stand apart, would take away space from the stuff that’s *always* been there, which alienates the older readership. (Not to mention that with staff reductions and the general sense of more being expected of fewer, there’s less time or motivation to do such flourishes.)

    And I want to clarify I don’t mean to put it all on the existing readership like the newspapers themselves are totally blameless – “Oh, newspapers would be awesome if it weren’t for those pesky old folks.” Frankly, they have every right to demand the product they like and are familiar with. But it’s not the same product that’s going to draw a younger audience, who don’t read the paper in the morning, who get news as it happens on their phone that is also a camera and has an entire library of music on it. The ball is in the court of the publishers and corporate owners, and here’s where those two businessmen come in, because in this current economic climate it *is* a “risk” to phase out the audience that’ll always buy the paper and go after a new crowd.

    If newspapers are going to survive, they’ll *have* to do this eventually – the only question is at what point do they give up increasingly dwindling comfort and security to do so. And yes, in a lot of cases, they probably should have already, but then again I’m not the one with the money and responsibility if it all blows up.

  3. It’s the same problem I believe Marvel Comics faced: how must you picture your audience, if you are to conserve your risk? It isn’t just the old fogeys that fill the inner eye, in this case, but also the young, affluent trendy, types…the new consumer class…and the young affluent trendy types you have working for you seem to be saying their bunch wants a flattering generational mirror more than they want a newspaper. Once you cook it all down, that’s what it means: lifestyle sections, and lifestyle columnists. Ego-stroking. That’s one thing that’s seriously invading Canadian newspapers, and that’s about all in the way of “exciting new ideas” many of the people who fancy themselves the “exciting new ideas” sort, can come up with. Well, the whole idea of having an “exciting new” anything in a newspaper…it’s cant, it’s lip service, it doesn’t mean anything in particular. The new consumers aren’t a counterculture, they’re just people who have identifiable demographic preferences in other media…it kind of reminds me of Mort Sahl’s line about the Reaganites, how they were conservatives who’d been raised to believe they were liberals. Younger folks at newspapers feel honour-bound to pursue generational change, but as much as they themselves may be passionate consumers of other media where innovation is going on, they still can’t turn that into a zeitgeist that includes the morning paper just by wishing. “Something you can’t get anywhere else” boils down to nothing but writing that’s worth the time spent in reading it…

    But the problem with that is, just as you say, you can’t market it. I mean, you can certainly advertise: “best newspaper in the country” or something. But what’s the target market for that advertising strategy? “We’re great; buy us!” There’s nothing like an angle, there; basically at that point you’d be trying to compete with the marketing strategy of The Economist. So around here, it’s all “Your Stories. Your News.” Which is a no-brainer, but if you can’t actually back it up with anything there’s no guarantee that mere flattery will work. You can try to be hip, you can try to be respectable, but those too are things anybody can get on their iPhone.

    What a muddle!

    Oh no, I think I lost the comics comparison…

    …Yeah, well, so NuMarvel in the Jemas/Quesada era brought guys like me back to Marvel, but the risk of losing all the people who bought all the variant covers in the Nineties just to please guys like me who’ve got nothing but the numbers…I mean, this is just my theory, but I think they stepped back from that cliff, and try to keep some of both groups, in some combination that would yield the most sales. The upside of committing to guys like me over the Liefelders is that you might end up being able to move a shitload of comics…but if it doesn’t work you’ll be stuck without any readers at all, and there’s very little data on me and my ilk to help with that call. Well, we all know what Marvel did — they looked at Ultimate Spider-Man and said “this is working really well, we can have some confidence in this”, and looked perhaps at The Ultimates and said “this is sexy as all hell, we can move this kind of thing no problem”, and then out from that they built the best big tent they could manage, some stuff that would appeal to guys like me, some stuff that would appeal to the Liefelders, and a whole lot in the middle.

    That’s how I see it, anyway…but it’s sort of like a ski-jumper adjusting his arms to get more lift. He’s still gonna hit the ground at some point. But whether or not that’s all true, I think it makes a reasonably good comparison case for newspapers — there’s just no way to manage that audience-switching risk except to manage it, but as long as you keep managing it you’ll never do it. From that perspective, I guess “hiring the very best people you can find” is a risk in itself?

    Maybe. Although I think I may have gone pretty far off the rails quite some time ago, up there…

  4. Well, it’s not like there’s not a lot of that “generational mirror” stuff about – the worst of it like “Nozin’ Around” on The Young Ones. At the same time, I’m not so sure it’s completely unsound – in the short-term anyway, so it could be a stepping stone at least.

    Something “new” *must* be done though, I don’t think there’s much getting around it. It sounds good to say TV and internet should supply breaking news as it happens, and the newspapers supply context and analysis, though in theory they should be doing that already.

    “Hiring the very best people you can find” though … it *is* a risk because economics do play a factor; particularly at the small-town local level, the best people are doing other things, often for more money, or at least the potential for more money.

    I wonder what would happen if a small city newspaper *could* get its hands on an influx of cash somehow – I do think scarcity of resources, of *hours*, are a big roadblock across the board.

    I never did have any answers for this sort of thing.

  5. And as for all the Marvel stuff … I don’t know there was even so much a big tent as a small tent very densely packed. There’s more *stuff* in it, but there’s not much space, if that makes any sense. And with things being packed together so tightly, fans didn’t seem to be able to say “Okay, you have your thing and I have mine,” because they’re butting up against each other, competing, really, for what the market is going to look like and who it’s going to cater to.

  6. Justin: wow, yes. You shame me here, this is it to the life: none of the Marvel fans with different tastes are allowed to have their own thing, because their thing always gets deeply tangled with what is not their thing — so it becomes something almost political, this infringement or competition.

    And as always in these discussions I should say it right out loud: Marvel lost as a “permanent reader” a few years ago. DC did too, but I’ll still buy some DC-owned mags or TPBs, and keep up in a way…heck there are even a very few DC floppies I buy…but Marvel on the other hand is right out, the last things I read from Marvel were Dr. Strange: The Oath, Deadgirl, and two issues of Immortal Iron Fist. On the TPB shelves there are few Marvel books that can command my preference, and basically those that do are all old stuff Marvel doesn’t make anymore. Kirby’s Eternals, things like that. Essential Thor 3.

    I do think the flattering-mirror thing is a sensible choice for newspapers — to ride a fashinable wave of cultural ephemera, well if it sells papers why not! As a transitional step it might well be the most bankable thing. And, definitely, “hiring the best people” is a WACK business strategy as a business strategy, in these modern times — there’s absolutely nothing there you can quantify or assess, what does it even mean to “hire the best people”, what can you expect to have happen if you do? Obviously there’s no way to tell. Circulation might go into the fucking toilet, overnight, and never recover. These are, I think, real concerns for the people running the show. If you’re starting out, if you’ve suddenly gone bankrupt, you might do all kinds of things because your risks are tremendously lowered. If, on the other hand, you’re a media company that’s built up a massive audience or built up massive public confidence over decades, the one thing you can’t afford to do is blow it to kingdom come overnight. At a minimum, you’ve got rent to pay on your offices. Janitors come in every night, indispensibly. You can’t downsize fuck-all, because you’re already hanging by your fingernails.

    You can’t do anything, until the end of your world comes. And even then!

    Oh, I have more to write, but I also have a big Olympic hangover a-brewin’…

    Oh yeah: in connection with the article RAB linked to, you know it’s funny…I remember in the mid-Nineties the buzzword of the Internet was “content”…strategic managers would always emphasize the need for content above all else, but “content” was the only word they ever used to describe it. And they were VERY BIG on “content”…but they couldn’t produce it themselves, because they didn’t actually know what counted as content, what “content” was…so they were constantly talking about it and how sweet it was, as sweet as synergy, but eventually that bubble burst…

    And now I really am feeling the Olympics hangover, so I’ll have to promise more later on this…

  7. I’m afraid so. I’ve been assigned to cut out various newspaper articles, and noticed that it was always the American ones that cut their words mid-sentence, while the Canadian ones at least had the decency to edit their sentence structure enough so that it would end at a proper point.

    If you go to any Newspaper stand and compare the front page headlines and where they stop off, you’ll see many of the worst offenders are the U.S. based ones. Canadian newspapers used to be like that, but they changed that policy about a decade ago. I’m not sure when, but shortly after that, other newspapers fell in suit.

    Personally, I blame the fall of newspapers solely on the ever-shrinking comics page.

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