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Take the "Daily" Out of the Daily Newspaper

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I recently finished a piece for a magazine. In the last days before the January issue went to bed, there was the usual frenzy last-minute updating, fact-checking, sudden forehead-smacking questions coming up, caption-writing, et al. There is, in short, a very high ratio of man-hours to the amount of content in a monthly magazine piece. Speaking as a writer and a reader, this was well worth it -- the final product is a very good one.

From an economic point of view, though, who knows? Magazines as we know them may not be around in 10 years. But then again, the glossy, highly-edited general-interest publication probably has some staying power as a cultural object because the content it serves up is not just interesting, but well-crafted. Journalistic content -- or, more broadly, the written word -- is stratifying in interesting ways. At one end, you have books and high-end magazines. Both operate with small editorial staffs and produce well-crafted content. In the case of magazines, that content has a still-convenient physical form, but also takes to the web in interesting ways.

On the other end you have the burgeoning world of blogs, news sites, aggregators, et al., where immediacy is king. Here you can have good writing and editing. But the speed and brevity and linking (with the capacity to jump out of a piece/post and then back in, or continue on elsewhere) mean that you don't get much long-form stuff that develops a deeper argument or a truly three-dimensional picture of something in one space. This is the dichotomy the Nicholas Carr wrote about, from the reader's perspective, in his Is Google Making Us Stoopid? piece for the Atlantic.

Who's the odd man out here? Newspapers, of course. They used to occupy a middle ground -- well crafted and immediate! -- but that ground is falling out from beneath their feet. Now they are neither.

The old-fashioned physical newspaper is outdated the moment it's printed. And (with exceptions, of course) it's not finely crafted. It's worth waiting for this week's New Yorker. Not so the morning paper, anymore. The problem here goes beyond the newsprint issue. Newspapers (still) have large bureaucracies of editors, copy editors, photo editors, et al who are trapped by their own habits and prejudices. The traditional newspaper voice is outmoded, weirdly opaque. (I was reading a recent New York Times story for research today, and was having trouble getting through it because I couldn't tell what the reporter really thought amid the dutiful quoting of various sources and bland NYT-style declarations). And the content itself, as papers shrink, will get weaker.

The answer, I think, is obvious. The "daily" part of newspaper journalism has become a trap. It's too slow for today's readers, not slow enough for good in-depth journalism. Get rid of "daily" obligations, the filing for tomorrow. Focus on immediacy. Liberate reporters' voices. But: devote some resources to long form and craft.

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