Monthly Archives: October 2011
What is the future of newspapers in the digital era?
Two of the most obvious possible answers:
Or, simply: “There isn’t one.”
But the real answer may not be quite that simple — or bleak.
Just building a website isn’t enough
Without more changes, most print media probably have no future. Circulation numbers continue to drop. You rarely see city folks packing the local daily around any more, or leafing through it at the coffee shop.
But just throwing their existing content online isn’t likely the answer either. City daily newspapers usually emulate a one-stop shop for all types of news — local to international, politics to entertainment — and this model used to work for enough people, before the Internet arrived. It’s rather difficult these days, though, to imagine many people surfing to the websites of theor Omaha World-Herald to get their international or Hollywood news. Too many specialized, superior alternatives are available.
Yet most newspapers have been slower to adapt their content than their form. It’s a lot easier for papers to just build a website based on their age-old model than to fundamentally reinvent themselves.
In my view, though, they are going to have to make that effort. And by doing so they could keep both their print and online versions viable for many decades to come.
The way forward
The trick is to get off the beaten path. Focus on what’s in relatively short supply on the Internet, and do that well. This is the era of specialization, after all.
For local newspapers, this has to mean local news. In my hometown of— and I doubt the situation is much different elsewhere in North America — I still have few other good sources for what’s going on around the city and province than the city’s media outlets. But the local daily newspapers are still clinging to their old one-stop shop model, and rarely offer the quality of local coverage that would interest me as a reader. A refocusing of resources that are currently being spread across too many different priorities is required.
The papers might say: ah, but international newswire services are cheaper than reporters’ salaries. But I’d call that penny-wise and pound-foolish: it really won’t matter when their whole operation goes down the toilet soon because of its increasing irrelevance to the public. Dump the wire services, add just a few staff, and reimagine the whole news focus. Dig deeper and produce more thorough, well-written articles about the city and region. Worry less about breaking news, and more about producing the kind of depth and polish you see in the better magazines. There are about 4.5 million people in B.C.; that should provide enough material to work with.
Such a refocusing would not just give newspapers better, unique content for their websites, but could also make their print versions viable for some time to come. People still like to sit down and read, so long as the content is engrossing enough to them. Newspapers with higher-quality, longer-form articles that can’t be found elsewhere could provide that.
Probably a major rebranding effort would have to accompany all this. And the total number of publications will still likely have to shrink, through mergers as well as closures.
So for some papers, there probably is no future. But for the rest there could be — if they’re ready to do more than just set up a website and a Facebook page.
You’ve seen them again and again. Types of stories or story bits the media pummels to death through sheer force of habit, or something. Certainly not because they are particularly enlightening or interesting.
1. “Duh” studies stating the obvious
It’s bad enough that universities and research centres often chew up time and money on studies that reach such obvious conclusions. But it’s even worse when the media pass them along as if they were some kind of revelation. True that sometimes there is some valuable nuance amidst the generally-predictable gist of a piece of research, but if so, focus on that nuance then.
2. Streeters or Vox Pop
“Man in the street” types of interviews. Well-liked by TV news shows in particular for their unique capacity to fill up air time with something vaguely watchable (the “people like to look at other people” principle) while usually adding no real insight into anything. Or even representing public opinion properly, since the news crew will typically just interview the first few people they can find, then bugger off.
3. Opposition politicians criticize government
What do you expect them to say? “This government is awesome; We suck by comparison, says Opposition leader”? There may be the odd exception when the critic has some special insight into an issue, but generally I don’t see the point in giving standard parliamentary debate any more of a public airing than it already gets. Leave it for CPAC and its audience of eight or so. Everyone else gets bored senseless by it.
4. Grieving relatives
“Gripping” TV images of a sobbing mother whose child has been murdered. Or loud newspaper headlines in the same vein: “GIVE US JUSTICE.” At times like these it’s hard to tell the difference between the news and reality TV shows. Or even fictional ones. Personally I see it as an intrusion into the victims’ privacy at what is probably the worst time of their lives. Sure, maybe it could help trigger an anonymous public tip on an unsolved murder… or it could lead to overzealous public witch-hunts like this. I say leave these poor people alone. The audience can get its cheap emotional kicks elsewhere.
5. Definite maybes
In their overeagerness to break a story the media will often report something that may happen. The trouble here is that, by the same token, it may not. How about just letting us know when they make a final decision on it?
When I was a reporter, breaking an important story seemed about as much fun as work can get. Especially when you’re writing for a smallish local newspaper, watching the bigger news outlets go scrambling after your story can be quite a satisfying feeling. And better still if the story exposes some kind of government wrongdoing — you imagine your college dream of becoming the latest Woodstein might at last be coming true.
But somewhere along the line I started to wonder: Does anyone notice or care about this sort of thing, other than us in the media? Say, for example, the readers?
Speed isn’t everything
These days, of course, there is just one forum for breaking news that regularly beats all others. It’s called Twitter. Conventional media can’t compete with a billion smartphones and iPads, even if the press is trying to speed-publish their stories on their websites.
But even when a newspaper does get its licks in, this preoccupation with getting-there-first is a bit self-absorbed. Outside of newsrooms, I can’t imagine there are many watercooler conversations about which news outlet got what story first. The media is doing well if people are talking about the story at all.
This is not to say that timeliness shouldn’t be important in journalism, especially with the simplest and shortest stories. It’s called news, not olds. But in the panic to beat the Tweets, or slap the promotional “exclusive” on a story, is the quality of the content getting the same amount of attention? Being quick off the mark isn’t the only way to be exclusive. Approaching a widely covered issue in a thorough, well-written style from a fresh angle is just a little too exclusive, meaning rare, for my liking. And it may just mean a little more to the readers.
The media’s private war with the government
And while media outlets play a private game of Beat the Clock with each other, another insiders-only battle continues to go on: media vs. government.
Yes, challenging the powers-that-be has always been a key purpose in the media’s role. But too often this ends up taking the form of just embarrassing government figures for its own sake. Then the politicians respond by investing large amounts of public funds in PR strategies. Then the media respond by accusing the government of wasting money. Then the government responds by improving the snacks on offer at its next press conference. How much of all this is really in the public interest?
The print media industry is already in trouble and faces a very uncertain future in the digital era. It can’t afford to put its energies into game-playing that means little to its readership any longer.
Light, bright and trite, an old journalism instructor of mine liked to say. Aim your writing at the head of a 10th-grade student.
It seemed a bit cynical to me at the time, but it wasn’t bad career advice. “Trite is good” is certainly a principle that has been fully embraced in newsrooms all over the world.
But there can always be too much of a good thing. Triteness is easily digested — and it can also be repetitive and annoying, especially when the heavily used expression doesn’t make much sense in the first place.
Here are five overused and downright dumb terms that need to
go the way of the dodo bird die out:
“Arguably her best work,” “Arguably one of the greatest players of all time”
The champion weasel word of the 21st century so far. Most often used to make an assertion without actually asserting anything, or backing it up. I think the word’s wide appeal owes something to the way it packs four syllables into a compact eight letters, thereby allowing the writer to be pretentious and lazy at the same time. At its most weaselly when combined with “one of” as in the example above.
SOLUTION: Assert something in only the strongest terms you feel comfortable with, so you don’t have to wimp out at the last second.
2. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
“The year in politics: the good, the bad and the ugly”
This heavily recycled title from an old spaghetti western fit well for the movie, but rarely does for the year-in-review and similar articles in which it so often appears. Usually the writers fail to explain what the difference is supposed to be between “bad” and “ugly.”
SOLUTION: The Good and Bad, Hits and Misses, Ups and Downs, etc. Also trite but at least they make sense and, being less figurative, stand up better to repeated use.
3. Thisgate and Thatgate
Weinergate, Spygate, Bingogate, any scandal with -gate on the end
Like a lot of cliches, this was probably quite clever when it was first coined. But that would have been back in the 1970s, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Probably beaten to death by about 1985, and since then… ugh.
SOLUTION: Just drop it already. Write “scandal,” it’s only a few more letters.
4. Impact (verb)
“How this decision will impact residents,” “The economy was negatively impacted”
A rising favourite for governments and corporations, this trendy usage is increasingly common in the media as well. But it fails to improve in any way on “affect,” and in the case of “negatively impacted,” ignores the richness of the English language: hurt, harmed, battered, undermined, upset, damaged and many more.
SOLUTION: Affect, hurt, etc. etc.
5. Kinder, gentler
“A kinder, gentler policy,” “a kinder, gentler (Famous Tough-Guy Type)”
Another ironic instance of the media copycatting the governments they normally take so much pride in challenging. “Kinder, gentler nation” was George H.W. Bush’s speechwriter-assisted re-election buzzphrase from about 20 years ago, but has since lived on in millions of news headlines for all kinds of stories. Whether Western society has actually become any kinder or gentler in all that time is very debatable indeed.
SOLUTION: Douse it with gasoline, strike a match, and watch it get “negatively impacted.”
I share some of Sara Barbour’s sentimental attachment to good old hardcopy books.
Ms. Barbour, in a June 17 L.A. Times article, offers an impassioned defence of books in the face of the Kindle invasion. For instance, books are more charming because they’re wrinkled and the spines are cracked. You can scribble in them. Big hardcovers make a satisfying “whomp” noise when you drop them squarely on the table. (OK she didn’t mention that one, but I always liked it.)
I don’t even own an e-Reader myself, yet. Like Sara, I take a certain retro-minded comfort in persisting with the old technology.
But Ms. Barbour’s melodramatic prose and wonky reasoning had me wondering if I was on the wrong team here.
Things get iffy in a hurry: the article begins with the expression “several weeks into December,” when her parents were feeling her out about possible Christmas gifts. Now I suppose the word “several” could be used to refer to a number as small as three, sometimes. But I personally reckon that “several weeks into December” is better described as, you know, “January.”
An editing issue or two could be excused, though, if her arguments were sound. Or rationally expressed.
But too often they’re neither. Some examples:
- She likens Kindles to video-chatting online with a friend. It’s nice, she tells her pal, but “the screen isn’t you.” Well, a hardcopy book isn’t the work itself either, any more than a Kindle version is. They’re both just publishing formats. When an old classic is reprinted numerous times with different cover designs, which is the “real” book?
- Her ode to books can tug at the heartstrings at times, but she overdoes it with lines like this: “Something crucial is lost forever,” she writes, when a story is “trapped in a Kindle.” I get visions of the Jaws of Life being called in to save the day.
- And what is this something crucial that’s getting lost? “The book can no longer be scribbled in, hoarded, burned, given or received.” Burned? I thought you liked books, Sara?
Her main point, though, appears to be that books are better at connecting people. Gifts make for happy reminders, and suchlike. But it seems to me that e-Readers can do the same or better with functions like copying a favourite passage and e-mailing it to a friend. If anything, curling up with a hardcopy book has more of a solitary nature to it than using any device with links to the vast public meeting space known as the Internet.
On top of all this, Ms. Barbour’s nostalgic resistance to the new technology seems a bit hysterical. There’s no sign that books will vanish any time soon. A recent poll found that one in six Americans now use an e-Reader, but those people are also buying the most hardcopy books. And e-book sales remain a small fraction of the total. If books are destined to go the way of vinyl records and VHS tapes, it won’t happen for a very long time, at this rate.
So let’s not get too weepy here, Sara. You’ll have books to burn for many years to come. For me though, if the case for sticking to books can’t be made much better than this, I may be off to Amazon’s website to check Kindle prices.