Newspapers: Leaner, meaner, livelier or else

I have been devoted to newspapers since — oh, since I was 6 or 7 and getting caught up in the ongoing adventures of Gasoline Alley and Our Boarding House and Little Orphan Annie and other daily heirs to The Yellow Kid.

My print addiction built with my childhood passion for baseball and the after-game quotations of heroes such as Ted Williams, whose fondest phrase, as passed along by sportswriters and dutifully cleaned up by copy editors, was “blankety-blank” — as in, “That blankety-blank umpire couldn’t call a blankety-blank pitch in a blankety-blank grade school game!”

Those were the days.

And these are these days, when the daily newspaper is teetering on the brink of (choose one or more):

— Irrelevance.

— Extinction.

— Rebirth.

Not a lot of people are betting on that third option. By the time I bailed out of the full-time journalism racket almost a year ago, after nearly 40 years of writing and editing for other people’s publications, we in the working press had pretty much taken to referring to ourselves (or at least, our institutions) as the Titanic, muttering with grim humor about rearranging the deck chairs.

And we did so in pretty much a vast silence, as onetime readers and never-bothereds ignored our flailings in droves — at the same time our advertisers were scuttling toward the greener pastures of Craigslist and television and direct mail and, if we were lucky, those preprinted inserts that arrive on your sidewalk with the morning news but don’t pay the newspaper what an old-fashioned ad on the page pays.

Long before Wall Street’s spectacular tumble, newspapers started taking it on the chin. Massive layoffs and buyouts, from the Washington Post to the New York Times (100 lopped from the newsroom) to the Los Angeles Times to The Oregonian, where I was one of nearly 30 members — all with decades of experience — of the Buyout Class of 2007. Now The Oregonian is in the process of another huge voluntary buyout, cutting 50 people from the newsroom and lots more in other departments. In Portland and across the country, it’s a journalistic brain drain of astonishing proportions.

What brought a great American institution to such a pass?
Over at Culture Shock, the sharply inquisitive blogger Mighty Toy Cannon has begun a fascinating conversation on newspapers and readership and the link between a critical press and a city’s cultural life. It’s a great discussion, right up Art Scatter’s alley, and I encourage you to join the fray. But the existence of broad and lively cultural coverage in the local press also depends on the health and stability of the press in general, and that’s a deeper discussion. So here goes. You’re going to read a lot of generalizations here, and a lot of tentative ideas. But it’s a start. Feel free to pitch in.

The easiest answer to the newspaper industry’s woes is, the technology changed — and there’s a lot of truth to that. The computer and all of its hand-held, wireless children, riding on the back of the visual-culture revolution wrought by television and the movies, has changed the way the world gathers and thinks about information. And too late — so late that in a lot of quarters it still hasn’t entirely sunk in — the industry realized that it wasn’t in the paper business, it was in the information business, and that meant it had to deliver the news in whatever changing forms the public wanted it. A lot of us got into the game partly because we loved the feel and format of the printed newspaper page. But we mistook the packaging for the product.

And the industry made a lot of other mistakes, some of them inherent to the way it thinks (or doesn’t think) about its very nature. It’s popular in the kneejerk world of politics for people to complain about the liberal bias or conservative bias of the press. And, yes, the press has lots of liberals — and lots of conservatives, to the extent that those labels mean a horse’s hindquarter any more. But the arguments miss the larger and more significant point that the press has an institutional bias. It is itself an institution, and so its sympathies tend to lie with other institutions. It is itself organized as a bureaucracy, and so its sympathies tend to lie with other bureaucracies.

That tends to pull the teeth out of the press’s fabled watchdog function. And that gap between image and reality needs to be understood — not only by the public, but also by the press itself.

Somewhere around the 1950s, institutionality and the myth of impartiality began to go hand in hand around the newsroom. Reacting to the sometimes rabid partisanship and leering sensationalism of the pre-World War II newspaper (and perhaps also to the understandable boosterism of the wartime paper), reformers in the newsroom spread the gospel of even-handedness — a gospel that tended, as a side effect, to also drain the juice and flavor from the news columns. The social upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s shook things up a little and even brought an influx of activist crusaders into the mix, but in the end the disciples of composure and balance at all costs won out. Newspapers became not so much thorns to the comfortable as smoothers of the waters.

This was not entirely a bad thing. Readers wanted to be able to rely on the accuracy and balance of what they read in the newspaper, so they could make their own decisions based on the facts. And over the years, papers have been lambasted from all sides over real or perceived violations of this pact of impartiality. But all too often the path to impartiality devolves into a lockstep formula: he-said, she-said, identify opposing sides, give each an equal number of sound bites, step away from the fray.

Unfortunately the formula has become well-known to regular players in the public conversation, and it’s become absurdly easy to manipulate — witness the extremism of our political campaigns, in which participants make ridiculous and often baseless accusations against their opponents, knowing that the press will report them largely without comment (or, worse, pump them into inflated diversionary “issues” for the sake of entertainment). This is a form of impartiality that is not fair. Sometimes — far more often than the press cares to admit — the two sides in a dispute are not of equal weight (and sometimes there are more than two sides). One wonders how the contemporary newspaper world would cover the rise of Hitler: a careful weighing of quotes pro and con, no doubt, with credit given his status as (after all) the leader of his country.

This institutional caution — this implicit confirmation of the status quo — has led to a press that is consistently behind the curve on the big issues. I want to stress that during my newspaper career I worked with some of the sharpest, most intellectually and culturally engaged people I’ve known. Nearly all of them wanted to put out the best newspaper they could, and many chafed at the restrictions they faced — restrictions that in the end were calcifications of the institution itself, and that for many of us, over time, became a self-checking device. We knew what the institution would and would not allow, we felt, and we played very carefully around its edges, hesitant to push beyond the self-allowed.

Technological changes far more horse-and-buggy than the Internet have also contributed to a slackness in delivering the news. For many years as an arts critic I could go to a show, come back to the office and write until almost midnight so I could get a review in the next morning’s paper. If it was a Friday night and I was aiming for the Sunday edition, I could write until 1 a.m. But the presses became overburdened, and delivery to the increasingly distant suburbs and beyond became more complicated, and deadlines became earlier. 11. 10:30. 9:45. Soon it was impossible to file anything in time for the next day’s paper. And soon several sections — including the Living section, traditional home for arts news — began to be printed a day or two in advance, and timeliness became not just a lost art but an impossibility. Once a piece of news got old it began to lose importance, and it became easier to shrink it or just not cover it at all. A sense of urgency — the vital force, the juice, the lifeblood of any news organization — was lost. What happened last night? We can’t tell you, but be patient for a few days and we might drop in a line.

Combine these things with a legacy of pseudo-populist anti-intellectualism and you get a press that all too often falls asleep at the switch. In my early years in the business I had a high-ranking editor who actually bragged that he had never gone to college. Now, I happen to think it’s good for a newsroom to have people from all sorts of backgrounds, and I don’t believe the lack of a college degree is necessarily an obstacle to intellectual curiosity or creative thinking. But this editor was proud of his know-nothingness — he guarded it jealously by never thinking beyond the next deadline — and disdainful of the young eggheads in his charge. And his attitude was hardly an isolated one. It was he and others like him who espoused the widespread newsroom theory that newspapers wasted their time and space by reporting on incidents and conditions in far-flung places that had, they insisted, no impact on readers’ lives. They had a name for that sort of wastefulness: Afghanistanism.

In my lifetime the American press has lagged on civil rights, on the war in Vietnam (although it began to catch up), on environmental and population issues, on women’s rights and gay rights, on the rise and impact of youth culture, on the rise and meaning of international fundamentalism, on the spread of AIDS (I remember, as an arts writer in a city where artists were dying in alarming numbers, often being the only person at my paper besides our courageous medical reporter to address the epidemic, and feeling that I had to fight to talk about it at all), on the massive transfer of wealth from the poor and middle classes to the rich, on the invasion of privacy by both government and corporate interests, on the unprecedented concentration of power in the American presidency.

These are not matters of left or right. They are matters of the reality in front of our noses — and despite some notable exceptions, on such issues the daily press has been late out of the gate and run a timid race once it finally got going. I have no statistical evidence, but my gut tells me that for a lot of potential readers — especially younger ones — the American newspaper lost its legitimacy and its relevance when it rolled over and played dead during the propaganda buildup to the invasion of Iraq. If this is how the free press acts, readers began to ask themselves, why bother? We can get our celebrity gossip online.

Now, with red ink flowing like a gusher from a broken dam and circulation plummeting like a skydiver who forgot his parachute, newspapers are scared stiff. The business model is broken. The readership model is broken. Drastic cuts are occurring, and the industry’s best minds are wondering: How far can we cut our staffs and still assemble a product that enough customers will want to read? How can we sell what we do on the Internet, and how do we drive readers to us as opposed to some other fact-gathering site? How do we reshape ourselves, with less money and smaller staffs, to feed the demands of both our print and our online editions? The urge to hit the panic button — to do something quick, for heaven’s sake — is strong.

Sometimes it seems as if only a few newspapers with national reach will survive. The Wall Street Journal for the business elite. The New York Times for the intellectual and cultural elite. The Washington Post for political junkies. USA Today for frequent fliers. (As an aside, let us regret the regional press’s overreliance on the New York Times to do the heavy lifting for us all. The Times is a great newspaper, but it is far from infallible. Consider the egregious failings of Judith Miller, who was the regional press’s de facto reporter on the leadup to the Iraq war, and the assertive war-poundings of columnist Thomas Friedman, who once things went sour blamed the government for not following his own prescribed policies and promptly moved on to other subjects.)

Such an outcome would be tragic for the cause of democracy and tragic for the small communities and regional centers — the Portlands, Seattles, Denvers, Cincinnatis, Newarks, Charlottes, Austins, Kansas Citys, Nashvilles of the nation — that the American newspaper industry continues to try to serve.

The facts are plain. The double-digit profit margins of the go-go 1990s are gone, gone, gone. Red ink is a reality. Print is a dying, or at least a rapidly shrinking, conduit of information. Papers will be smaller, and sometime soon they will have to start online and spin off to their print editions, which in effect will become advertisements for their more comprehensive (and in many ways very different) Web editions. All of this will need to be accomplished with smaller staffs, spread more thinly over an increasingly complex variety of subjects for an increasingly amorphous audience. It will need to be done with a new approach to advertising, or even sponsorship: Is the day of not-for-profit newspapers (as opposed to unprofitable newspapers) approaching? And because of those widespread buyouts and layoffs, whatever is done will have to be done without the benefit of many of the industry’s best and most experienced talents.

It’s possible that the industry’s financial problems are too deep to be fixed. How far would a $700 billion federal bailout go, and how could an industry that exists largely to monitor the workings of government accept such a thing, even in the extremely unlikely case that a bailout was offered?

Yet I am encouraged that something new and vital and interesting can rise from these ashes. Younger minds, after all, are more flexible minds, and it’s younger minds that are going to design the paper of the future. And in the public’s angry blasts against the press for its many real and perceived sins I detect a residual passion for the possibilities of the news industry. Would our critics be so vociferous if they didn’t want us to be something better than they think we are, and if they didn’t believe that the culture needs what the press could be?

So what will this post-apocalypse newspaper look like? Something a little different, I think — I hope — in every case. These “papers” (we might just have to come up with a new name for this information-gathering thing) will need to respond very closely to the needs and desires of their own particular communities, and that suggests throwing away the cookie cutters that mimicry and industry consolidation of ownership have brought to the look and content of today’s beleaguered newspapers.

A few essentials of what they might be look contradictory at first glance but aren’t really. They’ll need to let their writers loose and be more editor-driven. They’ll need to be intensely local and thoroughly global. They’ll need to be brief and take long, leisurely looks. They’ll need to be accessible and challenging. They’ll need to be serious and have fun.

Free the writers. People want to see personality. They want to know who’s addressing them. A good writer is a storyteller. Let her tell the story her way. (Of course, you have to do your best to hire good writers in the first place.) And let her tell her story free of the myth of the nonparticipant observer. Readers know stories are written by real people. Most readers are OK with that, as long as they know where the writer’s coming from. Many of the fabled storytellers of daily journalism’s past — H.L. Mencken, Don Marquis, Heywood Broun, Alexander Woollcott — couldn’t get a job on most of today’s newspapers. Why is that?

Edit the hell out of it. With tight space (at least, in print) somebody has to make tough decisions about which stories stay lean and mean, which ones ramble, which ones don’t get told at all. And compiler/editors will become extremely important, especially online. Their jobs will be to point you quickly and smartly toward information from other places that will expand and amplify what their own staff can provide. In a word or three: Link, baby, link.

Be the big box store of information. Those link-happy compiler/editors will be the lead players in the branding of The Daily Blat (except, of course, it’ll be The Hourly Blat, the Right-This-Minute Blat). And what they’ll do, if they do it right, will be to establish their brand as THE place people in their community go to find information. Some of that information will be produced by their own staffs. A lot won’t. It’ll mean linking to blogs, to other news sites, to organizations — places that offer a more strictly local perspective than the newspaper’s own staff can, and places that offer a more national and global perspective than the newspaper’s staff can. And it’ll mean linking to places that news organizations have traditionally thought of as their competition. Think Macy’s and Gimbels in “Miracle on 34th Street.” If you don’t have what your customers need but you can tell them who does, you’ll have gained a customer for life.

And the two shall be one. For the foreseeable future, newspapers will have to put out two editions — one on paper, one online. At some point, perhaps, print will fade off into the sunset. But not yet. Journalists must find ways to give both editions separate identities but also to make them support each other. (And they should have the same brand — not, as in Portland, a newspaper called The Oregonian and a Web site called Oregon Live that is poorly designed and only partially under the local newspaper’s control.) Print can do things the Web can’t. The Web can do things print can’t: It can link, it can show video, it can be immediate, it can be interactive. And the two forms can help each other tell a fuller story. I was reminded of that a few days ago when I wrote a story about an inmate production of Hamlet for The Oregonian and the paper’s Michael Rollins produced this fascinating video story on the same subject.

Embrace the rough-and-tumble of democracy. Newspapers are used to being the gatekeepers and guardians of information. They decide what information is essential, what information is frivolous, and how raw information will be packaged and presented to the world. Get over it. The new newspaper will have to keep one important aspect of its elitism — it will have to know what it’s talking about — but it will have to embrace the fact that other people know what they’re talking about, too. And it will have to bring those voices into its mix. It won’t be easy. Some of those voices are rude, abrasive, unpolished, different. That’s the point. Let them be real. Make clear which voices are your own and which are outside voices, but bring the outside voices in. Give them soap boxes. Space online is virtual space: It’s endless. Just help your readers navigate it easily. Let your readers talk back to you, and if you think what they say is full of it, tell them that. If you think they have a good or interesting point, tell them that, too. Be smart. Be lively. Be timely. Be essential.

Touch people’s lives.
Not everything important happens in City Hall or the cop shop. People have kids. They have jobs. They have family budgets, and health problems, and spiritual beliefs, and love lives, and passions for things as diverse as knitting and high school sports. Talk smartly with them about how they live, and point them to places where they can learn more about what they want to know. In a city like Portland, where intellectual capital is what keeps the economy humming, talk broadly and deeply about cultural life, from last night’s symphony performance to the battle over the new high-rise condo in the single-family neighborhood. It’s a real world out there. Get in touch with it. Readers will follow.

So, is all of this finally about nothing but rearranging the deck chairs? I don’t know.
I do know that if the thing doesn’t work economically — if you can’t sell the ads, if you keep losing paying customers — you can put out the best newspaper in the world and you’ll still go broke.

Still, I can’t help thinking there’s a kid out there who’s just starting to read Mother Goose and Grimm and Get Fuzzy and Pearls Before Swine. And another kid who can’t wait to see what Jacoby Ellsbury and Manny Ramirez did last night.

And I can’t help thinking they’re going to want a place to find out.