A recent article in Editor and Publisher reports the number of reporters in newsrooms is down at a level not seen since the early 1980s. That hardly seems surprising since the so-called local newspapers have been swallowed up in recent years by greedy conglomerates like Gatehouse Media and we have heard the presses silenced at some of the country's biggest, most respected major newspapers.
I finally canceled the last local paper I subscribed to, the Daily Herald. I dropped the Kane County Chronicle months ago when their reporters stopped showing up at county board meetings during a contentious local election. Board meeting articles would show up days later, with a synopsis and quotes from the board president. So much for the Fourth Estate when the papers just call local government for a one-sided hand feed. How convenient.
The state of the newspaper business wasn't on my mind when me and my husband chose "State of Play" as our weekend at the movies.
I truly knew nothing about the film, only I expected a Chandra Levy thriller from the clips I'd seen during a week of Affleck's promotion (congressman's researcher dead, affair). The movie had me with the first shot of a disheveled chubby Crowe sitting in a cluttered cubicle of newspaper clippings in a newsroom. I loved it because I am one of those 57-year olds who started as a working journalist 25 to 30 years ago that Paul Dailing dismisses in his blogs as being a little out of touch with the new media.
Crowe was the Ed Hutcheson of Deadline--U.S.A., the Carl Bernstein of All The President's Men (too crusty to be the Redford part), Lou Grant of Lou Grant. In the end, good beat reporting and checking the facts, something Crowe's character emphasizes to his blogger pal after he gets the scoop, are what sell newspapers. Duh.
Dailing has good cause to pick at Jeff Jarvis. In his A Scenario for the Future of News, Jarvis explains his view of things to come:
News will no longer be controlled by a single company but will be collaborative. Well, this is precisely the decision that killed newspapers. There is no debate; newspapers are dead. When I looked at the Daily Herald Tri-Cities and Kaneland edition and read about communities miles away from the Tri-Cities and Kaneland, I decided it was time to stop paying them for the privilege of having something for my recycling bin. Sharing news is fine, but what nobody seems to get is you can't share stuff that nobody cares about at the expense of things your readers do care about.
The heart of local news organizations will be beats. Again, duh. This was emphasized by Crowe's character knowing just what to say to get past the no comment of the police commissioner and verify information. Covering a beat allows a reporter to get to know the players, the inner-workings necessary to be able to put the facts in a useful and significant context for the readers.
Editing will change. I hope so. Spell check only goes so far, and I got tired of the guessing game trying to figure out confusing and non-sensical sentences (oh, they probably mean "their" instead of "they're.")
Investigative journalism will continue. And that was the point of Crowe's character, that it is necessary to ask the questions, follow the hunch and verify what you know. This is the value of a professional journalist doing a professional job, to produce a valuable product.
And that, my friends, is why newspapers are dead. The head honchos decided to cut corners, looking only at the bottom line. They decided to sell the stupid idea of news sharing, making front pages "packages," creating a new network of "local" news from sources that are not local, and to push "niche" material gleaned from recycling news releases. They believed they could package this crap, change the banners and no one would notice that despite the town name, the front pages were all the same and as you turn the pages they are all the same.
At the end of the movie, the huge roll of paper for the web press is wheeled in and the presses roll. The only thing missing was Bogart's line from Deadline: "That's the press, baby," and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" boldly playing in the background. And the old AP wire machine clacking at the end of All The President's Men is replaced with a computer screen and cursor typing out news of the congressman's arrest.
These newspaper geniuses have run the papers and their companies into the ground so far they'll be showing up in China. They didn't think a quality product was worth anything. They honestly didn't think their readers would notice. And stop blaming the Internet.
It's interesting the Senate will hold hearings next month on the future of newspapers. The problem is newspapers won't fare any better than the financial markets and the car companies for the same reason -- they have to change the way they have been doing business and get back to providing a quality product that people want.
Forbes recently reported that in spite of the devastating job losses in the newspaper business, enrollment at journalism schools is up. Dailing, fresh out of Northwestern's J-school with his master's in "new media journalism," might be able to stop picking insignificant blogger fights with the likes of an equally insignificant Sarah Lacy and get a job teaching.
Despite my advanced years, I and countless other aging reporters have been actually using computers since the early '80s in newsrooms. I love the "new media," but I think what goes around comes around and newspapers will soon rise from the ashes. My computer will never replace the joy of sitting with a cup of coffee while turning the pages of my morning newspaper with newsprint on my fingers.
A Kindle while sitting on the can? I don't think so. Just ain't the same thing.