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November 14, 2006

The Newspaper of the Future

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Yes, I sometimes have to whisk off stray bytes and pixels from my sleeve, so no ink-stained wretch am I.

My only brush with newspaper-type journalism was from the public relations side. Well, I helped put out the Fort Meade weekly paper and edited the monthly 7th Logistical Command paper while in Korea. But I doubt that those Army experiences count as "real" journalism.

Nevertheless, I keep my eye on the field. This is easy to do because newpapering has been really interesting the last few years.

And that's because newspapers are going to hell.

Circulations are falling. Staffs are getting riffed. The Internet is starting to eat into classified ads, the ultimate cash cow of the industry.

A take on the carnage that I especially like can be found on Jeff Jarvis' site, where former print media insider Jarvis offers several posts a day about industry woes and what might be done to salvage the situation.

If I understand him correctly, he thinks that papers should stop trying to be general-interest publications. They should strip out features that appeal to small audiences and thereby waste print and ink that might have better uses. Papers should play to their strength -- local news. They should become better integrated with the Internet.

Go to Jarvis' blog and scroll / click around through the last month or two of his posts, and you'll probably get a pretty good idea about his positions on media issues. Only the future will reveal whether or not he's on the mark, but what he writes generally seems sensible to me.

Critics from the political right (Jarvis is moderately to the left, aside from the Iraq issue) claim that one reason newspapers are losing readers is because their coverage of events is biased.

I don't know if this claim has been tested using solid data. But I do believe that most papers claim to be unbiased while definitely slanting news items by commission or omission. And that's one reason I haven't subscribed to newspapers in years -- I feel that I'm being cheated.

Enough of my gripes. What about Jeff Jarvis? -- he's the professional.

He claims that many publishers and editors are still so stuck in the past that they aren't willing to do what's needed to survive once revenue streams dry to the point where ledger ink turns red.

He favors cuts in content. He favors retrenching to local news. He doesn't pay much (or any) attention to the political slant issue.

And what do you think about newspapers and their future? Are you satisfied with the paper(s) you read? If not, what improvements do you think will appeal to you and readership in general? Do you think such changes will have a positive impact of profitability?



posted by Donald at November 14, 2006


As usual, the problems of newspapers in rural places are quite different than the problems in cities. Just the logistics of distribution are a major expense, risk, and pain in the butt where winter weather is a literal killer, esp. at night on ice and in blizzards. It's a hundred miles from the newspaper to our doors and yet I get "pajama service" regularly at about 5AM. The producers of the newspaper would very much like to go to electronic only. But not so many folks have computers here and those who have them don't read the Great Falls paper -- they sit in their pajamas reading the Washington Post or the NYTimes or going straight to the reports on cattle futures, wheat futures, the stock market in Japan, etc. A newspaper has always been a force for citizenship, weak though it sometimes may be.

At the same time, the Great Falls paper is owned back east. What they care about is not much like what we care about. Which can be a good thing! The paper is very pro-Indian (for their own romantic reasons) while locals are still pretty anti-Indian -- except our Governor who gets death threats for treating them like they matter.

The local TV is pretty dormant. Anyway, everyone who can afford it is on cable or satellite now -- they don't watch local. The local relay signal is always busted and does send PBS along. The radio is automatic satellite much of the time, but is often the best source of local news.

But the local town papers in this area (Golden Triangle) are all consolidated by one family. Their main editor is the local basketball coach. Think of the opportunities to control the high school administration and spin the behavior of delinquent players. Think of the chances for a little tickle-and-trade under the table with local politicians.

No good answers. But the mess is quite clear and probably global.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on November 15, 2006 12:16 AM

My employer has a subscription to two English language newspapers: The Japan Times & the Daily Yomiuri. I read these from time to time. The material they write on Japan is decent. The cultural items are usually more interesting and informative than the newsstories. The international stories printed in these papers come from the AP or Reuters and are similar to material I find on the web. I wouldn't spend money on a subscription to either of these two papers.

The other English language newspapers available are the International Herald Tribune and the Financial Times. I think the FT's a excellent newspaper, but a year's subscription costs over $1000/year and I can't rationalize paying that much. The IHT has a good crossword and that's about it.

I'm satisfied with the material I can find on the web and, what's more, the price is right.

Posted by: phil on November 15, 2006 1:06 AM

The only paper paper I read is the WSJ I grab for free in hotels, or the left-overs at the sandwich store. I personally can only think of one thing that would engage me enough to subscribe to a delivered paper again, and that's a leisurely retirement- or vacation-speed breakfast hour(s), and I don't think Belo or Dow-Jones can manage that for me. Therefore, I think they're doomed today, but especially when my mom's generation (60+) passes to their greater reward.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on November 15, 2006 2:26 AM

If I were to order the reasons why people I know read the paper it would be:

1. Coupons/ads, classified ads
2. Sports
3. Stock quotes/business news
4. Comics
5. Dear abby, horoscopes, weather, TV guide, movie times
6. Local events, local news
7. National/World news
8. Opinion page, letters to the editor.

Political bloggers and people in the newspaper business overestimate how much people care about politics/world events. To argue over whether blogs can compete with newspapers in reporting the news, or the political bias of newspapers misses the point. Jeff Jarvis is right about this.

The non-news reasons why many people read news papers are disappearing: online shopping, big box stores (like walmart/costco), craigslist for the shoppers. ESPN/CNBC/cable tv/video games and yes, even the internet have taken out much of the sports, business and entertainment reasons for reading the paper. I haven't looked at the TV guide or stock quotes or weather in a newspaper in years.

The news in local papers is mostly wire service stores (AP/Reuters). Stop pretending you're the voice of the community and the single source of news. A story is going to be old news to many of the readers; the rest are going to need more back-story/context.

In depth local investigative reporting is pretty much non-existent. Stop being shills for the real estate/auto industry. We can tell when you're just re-publishing industry press releases. Employ fact checkers - I've never seen a local story I was familiar with that didn't get at least one thing completely wrong.

Local events in my paper seems to be mostly 20-something journalism students writing about their favorite bar. They don't seem to make much of an effort to find out about events in the neighboring towns. The local features seem to be drawn all from the same small clique - write about people who aren’t your friends/neighbors once in a while.

Posted by: Kevin Odell on November 15, 2006 10:06 AM

If they cut any more "content" from our local rag, there would be nothing except ads.

Posted by: theprofessor on November 15, 2006 10:12 AM

Doesn't look like Newspaper Of Record's editors read Jarvis.

Posted by: Tat on November 15, 2006 10:46 AM

Here in Eugene, Oregon, I read the Register Guard for the Sports page, mostly for keeping up on high school sports and to read whatever I can learn about the University of Oregon's teams; for the Business page to learn more about local businesses opening and closing and for features about what creative people are doing in our area; and the City-Region section to find out who's getting married, who's gotten divorced, and who's died along with keeping up on local crime and other local features. As far as editorial opinion, I appreciate that the local paper runs some of the national voices, but my interest is more local: letters to the editor, local op-ed pieces. More and more, what I want from the newspaper is local news, analysis of local events, and investigation into local malfeance, which our paper does little of. I don't know how a local newspaper which is so much a part of the local hierarchies of power can investigate their fellow players when their friends do wrong. I'd like to see the local newspaper investigate the doings of private enterprises with the same interest they sometimes investigate governmental bodies.

In sum: local, local, local is what I turn to our local paper for.

Posted by: raymond pert on November 15, 2006 10:52 AM

The New York Post is the exception to the general trend of papers withering away. Circulation has been trending upwards since it became a Murdoch paper. I read it and love it: very lively writing, great columnists both serious and gossipy, terrific crisp color, hotties, a first rate slightly right-of-center editorial page (that's why all the lefties hate it): what's not to love?

You want to read a soporific five column long article extolling the "International Community," and damning the United States? Read the Times. You want to find a Sean Delonas cartoon skewering Kofi & Company? Get the Post.

Posted by: ricpic on November 15, 2006 10:58 AM

Funny timing. The new editor at the Philly Inqy, a former reporter at that paper when it was in its Pulitzer Prize winning glory days, is stating just such changes as he's taken on the task of saving that major paper. The reporters are restless, wondering who'll be axed. Supposedly, all the talent that's remaining will be loosed onto Philly and the 'burbs. The editorial staff will go on opining on local, national, and world events, using the Internet and the remaining national papers like NYT and Washington Post for their facts. The outward appearance of all of this coming back to the reportorial fold will be the perceived reduction in the number of the great cities in the USA.
New York.
Washington DC
L.A., I'm not sure f since they're cleaning the remaining meat off of the bones of the LA Times.

That's about it, isn't it? All of the other "Big" cities will become quaint "Large" towns.

Posted by: DarkoV on November 15, 2006 11:00 AM

I used to be subscripted to six newspapers and several professional weekly magazines, in the early nineties. But then, the publishers of those papers merged, and the quality of the news dwindled in most. Instead the papers started to deliver me general interest magazines in the weekend, for which I had no need.

In the old days, my reading habits sponsored the local elementary wuite nicely. Old paper is collected over here, often by schools, and sold for a nice price per kilo.

Right now, I only get one paper delivered in paper. Because its website stinks. Yet, since I write for it, so it doesn't cost me anything.

I've cut back to on general newspaper and a financial daily, and get the rest of my news online. Through my fixes on the internet I've outgrown any need for the poor quality Dutch newspapers deliver.

Posted by: ijsbrand on November 15, 2006 11:28 AM

I worked at several weekly newspaper chains for more than 10 years. Our coverage was exclusively local: Covering school board meetings, local councils and zoning boards, etc. At least one full page was given over to a feature about a local resident and high school sports were big. They were wildly successful, inspiring the local daily to start a bunch of local weekly inserts. After much changing of hands, the big local eventually bought the chain. I don't know what they're up to now.

I've OD'd on local news. You haven't lived until you've covered a hot zoning dispute during which both sides are calling you at all hours of the night and day with "tips" and wild rumors about what the other side is up to. These days, I watch a bit of the local TV news with my morning coffee and that's it.

I used to subscribe the the NY Times, WaPo and the local paper. When I moved to Maryland, I subscribed to the Sun, but I found I never read it with the exception of the supermarket circulars, which I can also get online. So I stopped.

Now I read newspapers online and I scarcely glance at the local news. Some days I only read the UK papers. The Telegraph has fantastic obits. The Guardian has great arts coverage and the writing in all is just generally more lively.

I suspect, though, that I'm not typical.

Posted by: Rachel on November 15, 2006 12:33 PM

Yes, "critics claim" that newspaper coverage is biased. Want to take a wild guess why?

Because it's true.

More and more readers who now have alternative means of acquiring information are fed up with newspaper writer and editor prima donnas who decide what news is ideologically pure and is safe to place in the hands of the Jukes and Kallikaks known as the public.

Posted by: Rick Darby on November 15, 2006 1:06 PM

Some of this may be right up my alley. Mild disclaimer: I have worked for a few newspapers over the years, mainly in the business departments, although the best summer job I ever had was as a proofreader where I made a relatively huge amount of money (double time on Thursdays proofing the Sunday paper). Still have a few friends in the industry, who are lamenting the slow, painful demise of the LA Times, as in the past they lamented the demise of the LA Herald Examiner.

Newspapers don’t just deliver the news, they deliver consumers to businesses via display and classified advertising, but since display ads are being usurped by television and direct marketing, and classifieds are being usurped by craigslist and other online sources, the economic base of newspapers is being seriously undermined. This is far more important than carping over alleged bias (and here the biggest problem of newspapers is that they are shallow, not biased). At times during the 70s and 80s, the Los Angeles Times was as proud of the fact that it lead the nation in advertising lineage as it was about the number of Pulitzers it won. By the way, subscriptions have never provided the main revenue of most newpapers.

Also, by the way, I recommend to people some of the coverage of the LA Times, in the Times itself, and elsewhere. One somewhat counter-intuitive fact is that some papers are still very profitable, but that the publically held papers are under pressure to increase their profits to levels that they did not have to sustain when they were family owned or privately held.

Papers are eliminating free copies to hotels (figuring these eyes don’t matter). Many papers have eliminated stock tables and their Sunday TV guides, figuring that people can get this information elsewhere. The opinion sections often consist more of syndicated columns than local writing. Some newspapers are experimenting with putting ads on the previously holy first page, something that was common during the early 20th century.

Free online newspapers may disappear if newspapers can figure out a profitable model for Internet versions. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times already have two different approaches to this. They also have to find a way to maintain or increase circulation. An old rule of thumb was that a physical news paper was kept for at least four days and looked at by more than three people (various people in the household and later by others who picked up a paper in an office, restaurant, etc). People would hold onto a newspaper in advance of holiday and weekend sales, etc. The question is what can continue to make a newspaper indispensable to people’s lives?

Oddly enough, newspapers don’t quite seem to realize that the Web gives them an advantage over TV. They might be able to cover local and national stories more nimbly, and provide updates and commentary for more comprehensively than TV, which can get to a story, but then relies on pictures and often lame anchors who are more pretty faces than journalists. And some people seem not to have noticed that weekly magazines are even more threatened than newspapers. Time, Newsweek and other publications cannot compete either with cable news, TV or the Internet.

Also, newspapers need to abolish their adherence to the publishing cycle based on the publishing date of the physical newspaper. For example, some online newspaper stories are held until midnight local time, or the time that the first physical papers would hit the streets. However, a concert review could be posted soon after the show premiere, and include video and audio clips, along with links to purchase tickets, MP3s or CDs, reservation info for nearby restaurants, etc.

Smart newspapers are also leveraging one of their greatest assets, their news archives, to provide background information for stories.

The best newspapers of the future will have to find a way to mix local and national news, even though increasing number of people are showing a preference for cheerleading, propaganda, official government press releases and obviously slanted “talking points” masquerading as news disseminated to radio talk show hosts, pundits and overtly ideological bloggers.

Cellphones, iPods, ebooks and the increasing importance of wireless technology may provide a new way for newspapers to get stuff out to the public. Would people be interested in having coupons and store discounts delivered to their cellphones, that they could then take directly to retailers? Would people read news stories on video iPods?

Posted by: Alec on November 15, 2006 2:05 PM

Related: WaPo announces big shakeup.

Posted by: Rachel on November 15, 2006 2:34 PM

In response to the "claim that one reason newspapers are losing readers is becaused their coverage is biased", I challenge anyone to give me a news source that isn't biased. Print, TV, radio, online - they're all biased. Going from newsprint to website isn't going to change this. What's important is that we have a population that is interested enough and educated enough to access a variety of news sources and cull the facts from the biased reporting each offers. Unfortunately, our population is increasingly neither interested enough nor educated enough to handle the task. If we continue to ignore rather than deal with this problem, the problem will deal with us.

Posted by: Diane on November 15, 2006 9:16 PM

Not boasting, but I consider myself a pretty voracious reader since my early teens and yet I've never read any of the available newspapers on a routine basis.

Since accessing the Internet, I've taken to occasionally reading the book review sections of The LA and NY Times and also The Guardian. That's about it.

For politics and national affairs, I peruse Salon, Slate and certain blogs and watch Hardball, the first ten minutes of Keith Olbermann and Tucker Carlson, some CNN, the network evening news and The Daily Show and some of the radio programs on KCRW and KPFK here in North Hollywood.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on November 16, 2006 3:19 AM

Donald – Hmm. From the comments of Rachel and Peter and others, maybe a tipping point has already been reached, and lots of people have already discarded “traditional” newspaper reading for other sources for reasons other than perceptions of “bias.” It might be useful to have a separate topic where people describe their news reading habits, whatever the combinations might be (net, TV, papers, etc.).

Rachel – I agree with you about UK papers, so you may not be as atypical as you think. Although I used to read the London Times (especially the arts section of the Sunday Times) and some Irish papers, the Internet allowed wider and regular access to stuff like the Telegraph, The Guardian, etc. I also find that I not only go to the BBC site for some international news, but also access some BBC radio programs (mainly music, comedy and culture items) via the Net.

Peter Winkler – Interesting mix of info sources. By the way, if you are not already familiar with it, I would recommend the KPCC interview program Air Talk, which I think is almost a national treasure.

Otherwise, I am a news junkie, but I crave original reporting, and disdain almost all punditry. During Hurricane Katrina, the web ruled since I could go to local online sites such as New Orleans TV stations and the Times Picayune’s site, as well as online sites in Dallas, Houston, etc., because I found a lot of the national coverage to be incomplete. For some Supreme Court stories, I will read the NY Times, which provides the best news coverage and often provides substantial excerpts, but then I will jump to Findlaw or the SCOTUS web site and read or download the opinions for myself.

By the way, I think that Internet radio streaming, podcasts and HD and satellite radio also offer competition to newspapers.

Let me throw in a little something about my own frustration with media. I cannot stand some of the ritual or formula of some news reporting and commentary. Sometime back there was a California ballot initiative that would have voters tax people with incomes over a certain amount to provide pre-school to all California kids. Newspapers wrote about the measure, and radio and TV programs had debates on the issue. EVERY radio and TV interviewer would be polite and allow both sides to state their case. One of the opponents claimed that similar measures had been failures where they had been tried, especially in Canada and a couple of US states. The supporter of the measure, of course, claimed that his or her opponent was lying or overstating the case.

No interview show, no newspaper, nobody, nowhere, nohow, ever investigated the claims or produced any locally based stories looking at how these programs actually operated. No online newspaper provided background or links to other papers or sites that had information about these programs. The ritual formula was: “We have presented both sides. Now you make up your mind.” But there was no original research into the claims presented. This was universally the pattern, whether it was mainstream news, public radio or some online news magazines, no matter what the ideology of the news source. People were polite to the backers and opponents of the ballot initiative and challenged them to some degree, but no one ever said “You claim this, but our own research either backs you up or contradicts you.” The local physical newspapers were particularly lame and lazy in their coverage.

Since one opponent claimed that a Canadian province had implemented the pre-school programs and it had not lived up to expectations, I did a Web search of Canadian stories on the issue and saw that sure enough, costs had risen tremendously and other problems plagued the program. I ended up voting against it.

Here’s the kicker. On another controversial ballot initiative, the LA Times had done some good coverage years before on a closely related issue. Had they provided a link to their own archived stories, they would have provided more of use to readers and voters than all of their contemporary blather on the issue.

In an ideal world, some enterprising reporter would do some of this heavy lifting for me. In a less than ideal world, newspapers and other news organizations are either going to have to find a way to do more evaluative reporting, provide relevant links in their online products or find themselves becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Posted by: Alec on November 16, 2006 1:19 PM

I certainly thing news commentary has been captured by bloggers. I've stopped reading newspapers opinion pages altogether since I started blogging - 12 months ago I didn't know people like Steve Sailer existed, know I spend about half my spare reading edgy internet commentators.

Leters to the editor are also a waste of time now.

However, newspapers are still important for actual news. The internet news format is also quite tiring to read.

I think there is some potential for newspapers to sell access to there research via on-line subscription sites. How much material is there that is cut from stories, and never used, that could be recycled by a keen inventive blogger?

Posted by: nz conservative on November 19, 2006 12:14 AM

Alec above is completely correct that newspapers have given up on the challenge of actually evaluating the many competing claims that are presented to them. Too risky, perhaps?

I completely disagree that newspapers are biased left. Newspaper bias is a confusing and difficult-to-pin-down mix of left and right. In practice, media bias has helped the right a lot more than the left over the past decade and a half. Left wing bias tends to happen around social issues like gay rights, feminism, race, etc. while right wing bias has been more evident on direct political coverage and harder issues like economics and foreign policy. Part of this may be that the right wing has been better at manipulating the media.

In any case, as someone pointed out above, the economic issues the papers are having aren't driven by "media bias", which has always been around and always will be in one form or other. They are created by the net and by corporate owners who demand very high profit margins. Newspapers need to be run more or less as a public trust, with profits sacrificed if necessary to quality and integrity. It's very difficult for a publicly held corporation to prioritize its mission and customers over its stockholders.

Posted by: MQ on November 20, 2006 7:51 PM

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